DOJ rebukes CA Governor for discriminating against churches and religious believers

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The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice sent Governor Gavin Newsom a letter yesterday saying his COVID-19 stay at home orders and his plans to re-open discriminate against religious organizations and activities. The letter confirms what many religious liberty attorneys and pastors have been telling the Governor for the past month or so. 

“No matter their religion or politics, all Californians should be encouraged by this letter from the Department of Justice,“ said Jonathan Keller, President of California Family Council. “We know Governor Newsom has a difficult job, and we pray for him regularly. But COVID-19 is no excuse to discriminate against people of faith. If movie studios, schools, and restaurants are allowed to open while following social guidelines, California must not discriminate against churches.”

The DOJ letter authored by Eric Dreiband, the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division, highlights two of Newsom’s executive orders as examples of discrimination against religious exercise. First, is the executive order defining which businesses can stay open as part of the “essential workforce.” While faith-based in-person services were prohibited, those working in the entertainment industry and workers supporting e-commerce were declared as essential no matter what they were selling. 

“This facially discriminates against religious exercise,” Dreiband wrote. “California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential e-commerce, 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.”

Dreiband then pointed to Newsom’s four-phase reopening plan as an “even more pronounced” example of “unequal treatment of faith communities.”  While places of worship were not permitted to hold in-person services until Stage 3, “schools, restaurants, factories, offices, shopping malls, swap meets, and others are permitted to operate with social distancing” as part of Stage 2. “This constitutes precisely the kind of differential treatment the Supreme Court” forbids. 

“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.” 

The letter concludes by asking Newsom to “do more to accommodate religious worship” as part of Stage 2 of his reopening plan.

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