DOJ warns California Gov. Gavin Newsom: You must stop discriminating against churches

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The Justice Department warned California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom that his plan to begin reopening parts of the state discriminates against churches.

The head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division informed Newsom in a letter Tuesday that he needs to allow some in-person gatherings for churches during the current part of his four-part reopening plan.

(Image: KTLA screenshot)

Newsom’s stay-at-home orders have been in place since March, and the second phase of his reopening plan does not include places of worship, which will reportedly be allowed to resume in-person services in the coming weeks – or months. Churches are being limited to online services, if they have the capabilities, while other businesses, such as restaurants, are being allowed to reopen with social distancing guidelines observed.

According to the letter to the governor from Assistant Attorney General Eric Drieband, this places an “unfair burden” on religious groups that violates protected civil rights, as Newsom’s plan shows an “unequal treatment of faith communities.”

“California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential ecommerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden,” the letter read.

“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Dreiband wrote.

Though no immediate action is listed in the letter, it served as a warning to the Democrat governor and reminded him of the comments from Attorney General William Barr last month on governments avoiding the violation of the constitutional rights of Americans in their efforts to enforce social distancing and other coronavirus emergency measures.

“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” Barr stated at the time, and later told federal prosecutors to “be on the lookout” for state and local violations.

“The Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis,” he said in April.

The DOJ letter to Newsom this week warned that California must “mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature.”

“Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true now more than ever,” the letter said. “Religious communities have rallied to protect their communities from the spread of this disease by making services available online, in parking lots, or outdoors, by indoor services with a majority of pews empty, and in numerous other creative ways that otherwise comply with social distancing and sanitation guidelines.”

Despite backlash, Newsom had reiterated his reluctance to allow places of worship to reopen in the state, speaking about the “fear” of a spike in COVID-19 cases during a news briefing this month.

“Congregations of people from far and wide coming together in a closed space at a large scale remains a point of concern and anxiety for us,” he said.  “We are working on guidelines for physical distancing and working with faith leaders talking about unique conditions in their own facilities. Nothing is etched in stone.”

The letter to the California governor comes as courts have been siding with individuals and businesses fighting government overreach and condemning restrictions that classify churches as “non-essential” in the pandemic.

About 3,000 California churches announced they plan to reopen for in-person services on May 31 – with or without the government’s approval. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s ban on in-person church gatherings was dealt a blow by a federal judge this month who allowed them to reopen.

And while misdemeanor charges against a defiant Florida pastor who violated a county stay-at-home order were dropped this week, over in Illinois, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that churches are still not allowed to hold in-person services.

The Democrat warned that the city “will be taking action” to fine churches found in violation of the Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s restrictions, as police blocked church parking lots on Sunday to deter members from gathering.

Frieda Powers

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