The Department of Justice told California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday that his four-phase reopening plan discriminates against churches.
Eric Dreiband, the head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, wrote a letter to Newsom saying that in-person church services should be allowed in Phase 2.
“Religious gatherings may not be singled out for unequal treatment compared to other non-religious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest, absent the most compelling reasons,” Dreiband wrote.
Dreiband noted Attorney General William Barr’s statement on religious practice and social distancing, saying the First Amendment prohibits discrimination against religious institutions and believers.
“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Dreiband wrote.
In Phase 2, schools, restaurants, factories, offices, shopping malls, swap meets and other businesses are allowed to reopen with social distancing, which shows an unequal treatment of faith communities, Dreiband said.
“Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans,” Dreiband wrote. “This is true now more than ever.
Dreiband said that religious communities have made a concerted effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus and have changed their operations to accommodate health-safety guidelines.
“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,” Dreiband wrote.
Newsom’s current plan has churches reopening in Phase 3, which could be several weeks to months away.