The Department of Justice (DOJ) warned California Gov. Gavin Newsom that California's coronavirus reopening plan discriminates against churches and continued restrictions on worship services threatens religious freedom.
Eric Dreiband, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division sent the 3 page letter on May 19 and noted while businesses and film studios are allowed to currently operate in California, houses of worship remain closed. He said that the governor should permit in-person worship gatherings in the second phase of his four-part reopening.
"Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights," the high-ranking DOJ official wrote. "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," he added.
The letter further states that churches should have reopened along with restaurants and other businesses during Stage 2 of reopening while employing CDC guidelines of social distancing and wearing facemasks.
According to California's Resilience Roadmap the state's reopening plan allows schools, restaurants, shopping malls, and some other high-occupancy facilities to reopen in Stage 2 -- while religious services cannot resume until Stage 3.The plan lists church services among "higher risk environments," such as movie theaters and sporting events.
The state entered its Stage 2 on May 8, according to information on its coronavirus response website, Fox News reported.
"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," Dreiband wrote. "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 believe... that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan," he concluded.
According to California Globe, a growing number of churches in California have set a May 31st reopening date. To date, over 1,200 clergy members have signed on to reopen before the end of the month.