The Justice Department on September 25 wrote a letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed, arguing that her city's policy allowing only one person in a house of worship is contrary to America's Constitution and "draconian."
The letter was penned by Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California David Anderson who argued that the policy was "wholly at odds with this nation's traditional understanding of religious liberty, and may violate the First Amendment."
The lawyers summed up their disagreements, saying, "there is no pandemic exception to the Constitution." Although they agree that a city must protect its residents from Covid-19, the pair of lawyers saw no justification for an infringement on the Constitution.
"Even in times of emergency, when reasonable, narrowly-tailored, and temporary restrictions may lawfully limit our liberty, the First Amendment and federal statutory law continue to prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers," Dreiband and Anderson argued. "These principles are legally binding, and the Constitution's unyielding protections for religious worshipers distinguish the United States of America from places dominated by tyranny and despotism."
The lawyers argued in the letter that the rules "plainly discriminate against people of faith and their ability to gather and practice their faith at churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship. Put simply, there is no scientific or legal justification for permitting a 20,000 square foot synagogue to admit only one worshipper while allowing a tattoo parlor to accommodate as many patrons as it can fit so long as they are six feet apart."
The lawyers wrote that the City's plan to increase the capacity limit by the end of September would "continue to burden religious exercise severely and unnecessarily, including for houses of worship with large capacity and room for proper social distancing protocols." The stated goal from the city at the time was to allow indoor activities at 25% capacity up to a maximum of 25 people by the end of September.
The letter ultimately called on the city to immediately equalize its treatment of places of worship to comply with the Constitution.
The city later lifted the limit following their goal for the end of September. However, the updated policy now allows a maximum of 100 people for indoor services.