The head of the federal Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Eric S. Dreiband, told Gov. Gavin Newsom this week that his COVID-19 restrictions and reopening plan discriminates against churches.
In a three-page letter to the governor, Dreiband told Newsom he should allow in-person worship under the current second phase of his four-part reopening plan. “Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” said Dreiband's letter. Preventing houses of worship from meeting while businesses and film studios are allowed to carry on working denies them equal treatment under the law, even when a health emergency has been declared.
California has one of the strictest stay-at-home orders still in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Bishop Jackson says his work is essential “Churches are essential. We are essential. We feed the hungry, we deal with the homeless people. We deal with people with mental problems, with spiritual problems. We’re dealing with counseling – and to say we’re non-essential was just to me was a total slap in the face for all the things we really do.”
A few churches have defied Newsom's ban on religious services in court while two state lawmakers introduced a resolution to curtail the governor’s emergency powers.Assemblymember Kevin Kiley said the extraordinary powers are for a governor “under conditions of extreme peril” and “were not meant to give a single person the ability to remake all of California law indefinitely.”
With federal prosecutors now weighing in, the national debate over how far coronavirus gathering limits can go to restrict religion could get even louder. The prosecutors follow a line of argument used in the church lawsuits in saying that the religious groups can provide safe, socially distanced worship.
“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.
“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,” DOJ's Civil Rights Division, Eric S. Dreiband, said in his letter to Newsom.