The Justice Department issued a warning to California Gov. Gavin Newsom Tuesday telling him his coronavirus shutdown plans seem to trample on religious liberties by subjecting houses of worship to stricter limits than many businesses.
Eric S. Drieband, assistant attorney general in the civil rights division, said Mr. Newsom’s original shutdown order in March was troubling, but his “Phase 2” order earlier this month, which allowed schools, restaurants, factories, offices and shopping malls to open more broadly, is particularly troubling, since religions aren’t accorded the same opportunities.
“Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true now more than ever,” Mr. Dreiband wrote. “Religious communities have rallied to protect their communities from the spread of this disease by making services available online, in parking lots, or outdoors, by indoor services with a majority of pews empty, and in numerous other creative ways that otherwise comply with social distancing and sanitation guidelines.”
He said the Constitution “calls on California to do more to accommodate religious worship.”
The tension between social distancing orders and religious practice has been one of the biggest flash points of the pandemic, with lawsuits erupting across the country and some pastors vowing to defy shutdown orders.
At the same time, health experts say some of the early hotspots for spread of COVID-19 came from churches that were still operating in March.
Attorney General William P. Barr has ordered the Justice Department to play an aggressive role in policing state and local shutdown orders that may stray too far in limiting religious practice.
Under warnings from the feds, local officials in Mississippi and Nebraska have backed off their policies.
Others, though, are battling back, such as in Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam is defending his policy that led to a church leader being criminally cited.
In California, Mr. Newsom’s office didn’t have a response to the letter Tuesday.
Several religious organizations have taken the governor to court seeking to block his policy, but in four cases they’ve been rejected.
Mr. Drieband, though, said three of those cases didn’t deal with Mr. Newsom’s latest reopening orders allowing businesses to expand operations but not houses of worship.
As for the fourth ruling, Mr. Drieband said it stands in contrast with decisions elsewhere, where courts have ruled that religious organizations must be given at least the same rights as commercial enterprises.