California’s Reopening Plan Discriminates Against Churches, DOJ Says

By Mary Margaret Olohan Published on May 20, 2020

California’s plan for reopening the economy discriminates against religious believers, the Department of Justice warned Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom Tuesday.

The DOJ told Newsom in a Tuesday letter provided to the Daily Caller News Foundation that though the DOJ understands California’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of Californians, the state also has a duty to preserve religious liberty during the pandemic.

Eric S. Dreiband, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, reminded Newsom that Attorney General William Barr recently issued a statement in which Barr emphasized that “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.”

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

California’s phase two reopening plan does not allow churches to reopen but does allow other types of secular businesses to reopen with social distancing measures, which Dreiband called in his letter “differential treatment.”

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“While it is true that social distancing requirements applied to places of worship may inevitably result in much smaller congregations than some faith groups would like, in our experience with other controversies around the country, many places of worship are quite content to operate at 15-25% of capacity in a way that allows for social distancing between family groups,” Dreiband writes.

He also emphasized that the DOJ does not intend to dictate how California decides to protect the safety of their citizens. Dreiband also told Newsom that “we are charged with upholding the Constitution and federal statutory protections for civil right” and that “these civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature.”

“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,” Dreiband said.

“We believe, for the reasons outlined above, that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan.”

Newsom did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the DCNF.

 

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