The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has warned California Gov. Gavin Newsom that his plan to reopen the state discriminates against churches and that “the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship” and he places an “unfair burden” on them that violates civil rights protections through “unequal treatment of faith communities.”
In a letter to the governor, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, pointed out that Newsom’s plan allows a variety of businesses to reopen in “Stage 2,” but does not allow churches and other houses of worship to reopen until “Stage 3.” Dreiband stated that Newsom should allow some in-person worship under the current second phase of his four-part reopening plan. Currently, restaurants and other secular businesses are being allowed to reopen under social distancing guidelines but not churches, which are limited to online and similar services.
The letter also read, “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.”
Religion and worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true now more than ever. 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…Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” wrote Dreiband.
Attorney General William Barr has also warned state and local governments to respect First Amendment rights of religious freedom. “[T]he Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis,” Barr wrote in his April memorandum.
A coalition of about 3,000 California pastors are committed to beginning in-person services on Pentecost, which is on May 31. Pentecost is the seventh Sunday after Easter, and it marks the birth of the Christian Church when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and followers of Jesus (Acts 2:1-47). The first Pentecost occurred on the Jewish holiday called the “Feast of Harvests” (Exodus 23:16), or the Feast of Weeks” (Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:10: 2 Chronicles 8:13). The Jewish holiday occurred on the 50th day after Passover (Leviticus 23:15-16), which today is called Shavuot.
The California pastors signed a petition stating: “As ministers of the Gospel, we have complied with the orders of governing bodies to cease meeting in-person as has been our practice for nearly 2000 years since the first Day of Pentecost. We respect the governing authorities and their role in public safety. However, the governing authorities have suspended our meetings indefinitely, refusing to provide a date upon which we can lawfully commence our practice of worshiping God together in our houses of worship. While we are thankful to the governing authorities for the significant efforts made to protect the public from COVID-19, the remaining threat of COVID-19 is outweighed by the severe restrictions upon the free exercise of our religion that we deem ‘essential.’ We are committed to public safety and will follow reasonable guidelines established and applied to similarly situated organizations” (emphasis added).
Liberty Counsel provided suggested worship options and safety measures at ReOpenChurch.org that can be modified to fit each church. Pastors and church leadership across the nation have already begun reopening in-person worship services.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Unlike commercial businesses, churches have a constitutional right to exist and to the free exercise of religion. The government has no authority to dictate the form and manner of worship. Thousands of churches across the nation have begun the process of reopening with some form of in-person services while also protecting the health and safety of all involved. Gov. Newsom must stop his unequal treatment of these faith communities.”