Justice Department tells California to reopen churches

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

A letter from federal attorneys pointed to “civil rights concerns” around California’s stay-at-home order, which since March has prohibited the faithful from assembling at houses of worship. The Department of Justice noted that religious services are barred even as sectors of the economy deemed “essential” have been allowed to remain open.

“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.

California’s halt on religious services has already prompted legal battles and defiant stands from faith leaders who have kept their churches open. Federal judges have so far rejected legal requests to allow their services to resume.

But the Department of Justice said those rulings “do not justify California’s actions” and asserted that “reopening plans cannot unfairly burden religious services as California has done.”

“We believe, for the reasons outlined above, that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan,” the letter said.

Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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.”

view Politico