The U.S. Department of Justice has warned California Governor Gavin Newsom that he cannot discriminate against houses of worship looking to conduct in-person religious services as the state proceeds with its reopening process.
In a Tuesday letter from federal attorneys acquired by Politico, Eric S. Dreiband, the Assistant Attorney General of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, cited several “civil rights concerns” around the prohibition of church services in California’s stay-at-home order. Dreiband noted that religious services remain barred despite “nonessential” sectors of the economy being allowed to remain open—especially California’s entertainment industry.
“This facially discriminates against religious exercise,” Dreiband says. “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, regardless of whether remote worship is practical or not.”
At this point, Newsom’s gradual plan to reopen the state’s economy would allow religious services to resume after forms of commerce like manufacturing, which Dreiband says is blatant “unequal treatment of faith communities.”
Earlier this week, Newsom said that in-person worship could get the green light in the coming weeks as infection, testing, and hospitalization numbers show improvement.
“I want to just express my deep admiration to the faith community and the need and desire to know when their congregants can once again start coming back to the pews, coming back together,” the governor said on Monday.
Although Newsom’s tough stance on church services during his lockdown has prompted legal action from defiant churches in the state, federal judges have thus far rejected requests to allow services to resume.
Those rulings, Dreiband countered, “do not justify California’s actions” and asserted that “reopening plans cannot unfairly burden religious services as California has done.”
“Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true now more than ever,” Dreiband’s letter declared. “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.”
“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,” the letter concluded.
Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request from Politico for comment.
Harmeet Dhillon, the conservative attorney who led the legal charge against California’s halt on church services, told Politico that the letter vindicated her argument in defense of the churches she represented.
“Literally, this country was founded on the concept that the king cannot tell the peasants how they may worship,” Dhillon told the outlet. “Gov. Newsom may not tell people of faith that they can only worship in their homes.”
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