- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2020

San Francisco’s mayor has lifted citywide restrictions on indoor worship limiting one person per church, days after Justice Department attorneys described the pandemic-related order as a “discriminatory scheme.”

In announcing new COVID-19 protocols on Tuesday, Mayor London Breed said the city had anticipated lifting its “1-congregant” rule on indoor worship before the end of September. State rules, however, still restrict attendance at houses of worship, drawing the ire of religious groups.

“We want and we intend to worship God safely: with masks, social distancing, sanitation, ventilation, and other such safety protocols,” San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone wrote in an open letter Tuesday. “But we will not accept believers being treated more severely than other, comparable secular activities.”

Federal attorneys called on the city last week to scrap its limits on indoor worship, warning city officials that adopting California’s rules would “severely and unnecessarily” burden constitutionally protected religious expression.

“The proposed ‘goal’ would also continue to disadvantage religious exercise compared to the permitted secular indoor activities described above,” Eric S. Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, and David Anderson, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, wrote in a Sept. 25 letter to Ms. Breed.

The federal attorneys had threatened they “may take further action” against the city to “protect the religious liberty rights of the people on San Francisco.”

In a statement, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said that “weeks before this DOJ letter” the city had announced places of worship could reopen to “25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors” on Sept. 30.

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday, the mayor touted the direction of COVID-19 numbers in the city, which have dipped from a high of 12,000 new cases in mid-August to less than 5,000 new cases for almost all of September.

“We know this continues to be a challenging time with people struggling economically and emotionally,” said Ms. Breed.

Officials with the California Department of Health have transitioned San Francisco County to the “orange tier,” designated in the state’s reopening plan authorized last month for counties with “moderate spread” or positivity rates under 5%. Under new rules, indoor worship in “orange tier” counties is limited to 50% max capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer.

The state’s most lenient tier, “minimal spread,” also limits church worship to 50% capacity.

Archdiocesan officials told The Washington Times that, while they are pleased with Ms. Breed’s removal of city strictures, many counties in the archdiocese remain in either the “red tier,” demarcating moderate spread of the virus, or “purple tier,” for which indoor worship is prohibited.

San Francisco’s prior health rule permitted “[o]nly one individual member of the public may enter the house of worship at a time” and had become a target for scrutiny by religious liberty advocates.

By last week, tens of thousands of Catholics had signed a petition, in Spanish and English, calling on state, local and public health officials to “free the Mass.”

In its letter to the mayor on Friday, the Justice Department cited the 2,400-seat Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption and Congregation Sherith Israel’s 1,400-seat synagogue, saying the city’s rules limited attendance to a “vanishing fraction” of capacity were unconstitutional.

A synagogue spokesperson said the congregation was aware it was cited in the letter but said it understands the tough measures taken by the city.

“While we would love to be in a place to celebrate in our traditional manner, we are still able to practice our religion,” wrote Gordon Gladstone, executive director of Congregation Sherith Israel in an email to The Washington Times.

As of Wednesday, city ordinances remain in place keeping shuttered indoor movie theaters and outdoor parks in San Francisco. Ms. Breed says the city’s goal is to lift those sometime in October.

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