DOJ orders California to open churches

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People of faith in California are facing discrimination during Governor Gavin Newsom’s phased approach to reopening the state.

California, the nation’s most populous state with 40 million people, has been under “lockdown” conditions since March 19th, with “blue state” severity. Churches, non-profits, bars, restaurants, schools, stadiums, theaters, and other places in which people assemble have been closed since then.

Though the most populous state, California has not been as hard hit by the virus as New York, and New Jersey. The number of confirmed cases and the number of deaths in the state are about 82,000 confirmed cases and approximately 3,330 deaths. Southern California has been hit the hardest, but the numbers are low in comparison to the population. Many Californians, including people of faith, believe it is time to open up the state.

Discriminatory practice

Newsom, a Democrat, is opening up the state slowly and carefully, but one thing he is doing doesn’t make sense, nor is it, it seems, constitutional. Even though schools and daycare centers will open in phase 2, churches, which have been deemed “nonessential” and higher risk, aren’t to open until phase 3 of his plan to open California. He explained his reasoning thus:

Our fear is simply this. 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. 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.

But the governor’s concern did not seem to include the schools and daycare centers, the Walmarts and Home Depots. On the face of it, practicing social distancing and sanitation would be much harder in schools and daycare centers, than in churches. People have been congregating from far and wide on a daily basis in Walmarts, Targets, Home Depots, Sam’s Clubs, and Costco throughout the lockdown.

This inequity in opening the state is triggering the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ and Attorney General William Barr to order the state to be fair in how things are done. Newsom is bordering on discriminating against religion in his opening plans.

Attorney Harmeet Dhillon who argued against the governor’s overreach commented:

Literally, this country was founded on the concept that the king cannot tell the peasants how they may worship. Gov. Newsom may not tell people of faith that they can only worship in their homes.

Preventing churches from gathering is illegal

“This facially discriminates against religious exercise. 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.”

In a memorandum to all US Attorneys, Barr warned of unconstitutional discrimination by the government and its consequences:

As the Department of Justice explained recently in guidance to states and localities taking steps to battle the pandemic, 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. The legal restrictions on state and local authority are not limited to discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. For example, the Constitution also forbids, in certain circumstances, discrimination against disfavored speech and undue interference with the national economy. If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court.   

California churches have been protesting the lockdown, and thousands have announced they will have services on May 31, Pentecost, whether the lockdown is lifted or not, and it looks like the DOJ is going to back them up.

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