Justice reprimands Cal Gov over Church Meeting Restrictiction

by Placerville Newswire / May 21, 2020 / comments

[Cris Alarcon]

A few days ago the U.S. Justice Department issued an administrative warning to Governor Gavin Newson over his Staged  Plan restrictiing Church meetings.  Because of Newson's double standard applied to the Entertainment industry as opposed to the gathering of people in Churches.

On Tuesday the U.S. Department of Justice has warned California governor over pandemic church closings.

The DOJ is not dictating how the State should reopen but is charged with upholding Constitution issues stating: “upholding the Constitution and federal statutory protections for civil rights. Whichever level of restrictions you adopt, these civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature.

The issue is that Newsom’s plan indicates churches cannot  reopen until the third phase.  Eric Dreiband, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said the governor shows an “unequal treatment of faith communities in the plan by preventing them from gathering in person, while other secular businesses like restaurants are permitted to reopen earlier, with social distancing guidelines."  Currently, Newsom’s plan indicates churches can reopen in the third phase.

On Monday, May 18, 2020, Governor Gavin Newson announced relaxed state guidelines for Phase 2 reopening of dine-in restaurants, offices, outdoor museums, shopping centers and malls.  Newsom eased restrictions for some counties, making it easier for them to move toward reopening retail stores and restaurants for sit-down dining. He said the state was in discussions with major sports leagues about resuming play.  The governor also said some workers may begin returning to offices when working from home was not practical, including the entertainment industry in a list of businesses exempted from restrictions.

Since March Governor Gavin Newson has prohibited the faithful from assembling at houses of worship.

The U.S. Department of Justice warned Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday, May 19, 2020 that California must do more to accommodate in-person religious gatherings.

DOJ warned Newsom that his planned Stages of reopening discriminates against churches.  The DOJ letter states that “We believe that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan.”  

The Justice Department official concluded this placed an “unfair burden” on places of worship.

Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” said the administrative warning to Governor Gavin Newson.

The letter refers to remarks that Attorney General William Barr made in April that the government cannot apply “special restrictions” on religious activity and not on secular activity. It does not threaten immediate legal action but comes as a warning to the governor.

Newsom’s office confirmed that it had received the letter.  A spokesman for Newsom, asked for comment, said only that the governor’s office had received the DOJ letter.

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,” the DOJ said in its letter.

This facially discriminates against religious exercise,” the letter 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.

Newsom’s framework for incrementally reopening California’s economy would allow religious services to resume after forms of commerce like manufacturing, which the federal government called an example of “unequal treatment of faith communities.” 

Newsom said this week that the state could greenlight in-person worship in the coming weeks as infection, testing and hospitalization numbers improve.  “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," Newsom said Monday.

Harmeet Dhillon, the conservative attorney who spearheaded legal challenges to California’s halt on church services, said in an interview that the federal government vindicated her argument that Newsom had overreached.

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

Justice Department officials warned California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday that his plan for gradually easing the state’s coronavirus lockdown disfavors religious groups.

California’s March stay-home order and another this month outlining plans for a staggered reopening treat churches and religious services less favorably than secular activities.

The Federal 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.” 

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

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. President Donald Trump’s reelection appeal to devout conservative voters rests in part on his vocal advocacy for religious freedom, making the issue a politically potent one for his administration to take up" - Associated Press.

 

--- DOJ Letter ---

 

U.S. Department of Justice 

Civil Rights Division 

Office of the Assistant Attorney Oaten,' Washington. AC 20530 

May 19, 2 020 

The Honorable Gavin Newsom Governor of California 1303 10th Street, Suite 1 173 Sacramento, CA 95 814 

 

Dear Governor Newsom: 

We are writing to you to raise several civil rights concerns with the treatment of places of worship in Executive Orden N-33-20 and N-60-20 and documents relating to the California Reopening Plan. 

 

Of course, we recognize the duty that you have to protect the health and safety of Californians in the face of a pandemic that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. You and other leaders around the country are called on to balance multiple competing interests and evaluate the constantly changing information available to you about COVID-19, and make your best judgment on courses of action. 

 

Attorney General William P. Barr recently issued a statement on Religious Practice and Social Distancing, in conjunction with a Mississippi case in which the Department of Justice participated regarding restrictions on worship. In the statement, the Attorney General emphasized the need to practice social distancing to control the spread of COVID-1 9. He also noted that temporary restrictions that would be unacceptable in normal circumstances may be justified. But, "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. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity." Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. 

 

Laws that do not treat religious activities equally with comparable nonreligious activities are subject to heightened scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Church of the Lukumi Bahalu Ave v. City of liudeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993). Laws that are not both neutral toward religion and generally applicable are invalid unless the government can prove that they further a compelling interest and are pursued through the least restrictive means possible. Religious gatherings may not be singled out for unequal treatment compared to other nonreligious gatherings that have the same effect on the government's public health interest, absent the most compelling reasons. 

 

Executive Order N-33-20 (March 19, 2020) ordered Californians to remain at home except to engage in authorized necessary activities as laid out by the Public Health Officer at the time and as modified going forward. The Public Health Officer's April 28 "essential workforce" list does not appear to treat religious activities and comparable nonreligious activities the same. 

 

The list includes "faith based services" but only if "provided through streaming or other technologies." In-person religious services are thus apparently prohibited even if they adhere to social distancing standards. 

 

The list of nonreligious workers who are not so restricted by the Executive Order and essential workforce list when telework "is not practical" is expansive. For example, the list includes "Workers supporting the entertainment industries, studios, and other related establishments, provided they follow covid-19 public health guidance around social distancing.- Likewise, "workers supporting ecommerce" are included as essential, regardless of whether the product they are selling and shipping are life-preserving products or not. 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. 

 

Even more pronounced unequal treatment of faith communities is evident in California's Reopening Plan, as set forth in Executive Order N-60-20 (May 4, 2020), and in the documents the California Department of Public Health produced pursuant to it, including the "Resilience Roach/lap- (https://covid19.ca.govIroadmapl) and "County Variance Attestations-(https ://ww w.cd ph.ca. go v/Programs/CI DiDC DC/Pa ges/COVID-19/Local-Variance-Aucstation,s.aspx). Places of worship are not permitted to hold religious worship services until Stage 3. However, in Stage 2, schools, restaurants, factories, offices, shopping malls, swap meets, and others are permitted to operate with social distancing. And as noted, ecommerce and entertainment industry activities are already permitted with social distancing. This constitutes precisely the kind of differential treatment the Supreme Court identified in the Lukumi decision in which the government is not willing to impose on certain activities the same restrictions it is willing to impose on constitutionally protected religious worship. 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. 

 

The Department of Justice does not seek to dictate how States such as California determine what degree of activity and personal interaction should be allowed to protect the safety of their citizens. However, we are charged with upholding the Constitution and federal statutory protections for civil rights. Whichever level of restrictions you adopt, these civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature. 

 

We recognize that three U.S. District Courts have denied Temporary Restraining Orders (TRO's) sought by plaintiffs against Executive Order N-33-20-4biding Place Ministries v. Wooten. No. 3:20-cv-00683 (S.D. Cal. April 10, 2020) (no written opinion); Gish v. Newsom, No. 5:20-CV-755 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 23, 2020); Cross Culture Christian Ctr. v. Neitsom, No. 2:20-CV-00832 (F.D. Cal. May 5, 2020), and one denied a TRO against the Reopening Plan.