The governor of California is set to be pinched between discontented churchgoers and the federal government.
Saying that there is “no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” the director of the federal Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division told Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 19 that his plan to reopen California is discriminatory toward churches.
In a letter to the governor, Eric S. Dreiband said that despite a coronavirus outbreak “that is unprecedented in our lifetimes,” Newsom should permit some in-person services under the current second phase of his four-part reopening plan.
Restaurants and other money-making enterprises are being allowed to reopen with social distancing rules but not churches, which will remain limited to online and similar services.
This puts an “unfair burden” on churches that violates civil rights protections through “unequal treatment of faith communities,” the letter said.
“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” the letter reads.
Newsom this week further relaxed guidelines for counties to reopen more businesses closed under his March stay-at-home order that barred nonessential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19. He said churches and other religious institutions could start welcoming back worshippers for in-person services in the coming weeks.
A few churches have defied the ban on such services and sued to reopen, so far without success.
Two Republican state lawmakers on May 19 introduced a resolution to limit the governor’s emergency powers. 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.”