In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division warned that the Democrat’s plan to reopen the state violates the Constitution and infringes on the First Amendment rights of churches and worshippers. In the letter, penned by Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, the DOJ argues that by delaying “in-person gatherings,” which would included churches, to the third phase of the plan, Newsom is putting stores, schools, restaurants, and businesses ahead of houses of worship.
This, he wrote, is religious discrimination and constitutes “unequal treatment of faith communities.”
“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Dreiband explained. “The Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate for religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening plan. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.”
While the letter does not specifically threaten legal action against California, it does reference statements made by Attorney General William Barr last month, in which he warned that the DOJ would be looking closely at pandemic shutdown orders to make sure that Americans were not seeing their constitutional rights violated.
“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” Barr said at the time.
In the letter, Dreiband said that California officials had done a poor job at answering a necessary question: Why churches being open pose a greater public health threat to the community than other, similar, gatherings.
“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.”
Harmeet Dhillon, an attorney who has been at the forefront of challenging Newsom’s lockdown orders as they pertain to church services, said that the Department of Justice’s letter was the perfect vindication of her legal argument.
“Literally, this country was founded on the concept that the king cannot tell the peasants how they may worship,” Dhillon said. “Gov. Newsom may not tell people of faith that they can only worship in their homes.”
So far, Newsom has not responded to the DOJ’s mandate.