In a baldfaced political ploy to win more votes for Trump, a Department of Justice official has written California Governor Gavin Newsom a strongly worded letter suggesting that the state's reopening timeline violates the civil rights of the faithful and represents "unequal treatment of faith communities" because of the imposed delay on reopening places of worship.
Ignoring the fact that major outbreaks in Washington State and South Korea have been definitively linked to churches and choir practices, Eric S. Dreiband, the head of the federal Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote to Newsom Tuesday saying that his order
"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," Dreiband writes. "We believe that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan."
DOJ’s letter to CA Gov. Newsom on civil rights and the covid-19 pandemic.— KerriKupecDOJ (@KerriKupecDOJ) May 19, 2020
“We believe that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan.” pic.twitter.com/8A4D95QKxs
The letter references a Mississippi case in which Attorney General William Barr recently weighed in — no doubt for similarly political reasons — saying that "even in times of emergency... [the] government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity."
And Dreiband suggests that as secular businesses and restaurants reopen with social-distancing guidelines, so must places of worship, in Phase 2.
"Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights," he writes.
Dreiband's letter carries no threat of legal action, California is not the only state to have temporarily banned in-person religious gatherings — for clear, scientific reasons, because they have been shown to foster virus spread due to the length of time people spend expelling breath and/or singing in an enclosed space.
And this warning from the DOJ, ironically, arrives just ten days after an illegal church service in Butte County, California exposed 180 people to the coronavirus, after a parishioner tested positive right after attending an indoor service on Mother's Day, May 10. Also, the Mendocino Voice reports on a pastor at a church in Ukiah who is now hospitalized with COVID-19 after live-streaming a service on Mother's Day. Two other people involved with the broadcast, a singer and a cameraperson, have also tested positive, and it's unclear who was infected first.
But, as the Associated Press notes, "With federal prosecutors now weighing in, the national debate over how far coronavirus gathering limits can go to restrict religion could get even louder."
Meanwhile, KPIX reports on The Valley Church in rural Vacaville, in Solano County, which is itching to reopen under limited-capacity rules. Pastor Jeremy White tells the station he wants his church open in time for Pentecost Sunday, on May 31, with a strict limit of 80 parishioners inside, and a video screen set up outside.
"We’ve been told by our county that it’s strongly possible that we can open on May 31,” he tells KPIX. “But, of course, they’re working with our governor and the powers above them to determine whether that’s going to be okay."
Pastor Bob Jackson of Oakland’s Acts Full Gospel Church tells the station that he's unhappy with the idea that church has been deemed "non-essential," and he contends that his 4,000-person-capacity church can still fit 900 inside with six-foot distancing between people. Still, he understands he may be performing services on Pentecost Sunday via the church parking lot.