In a letter Tuesday, the head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division warned California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom that his plan to reopen the state discriminates against churches.
The Justice Department argued that the governor’s current four-prt plan to reopen places an “unfair burden” on religious institutions by delaying in-person gatherings until the third phase, which is after schools, restaurants, businesses, and shopping centers are permitted to reopen in the second phase.
This constitutes “unequal treatment of faith communities,” the letter, sent by Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband, along with four other U.S. attorneys in California, suggested.
“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Dreiband wrote.
According to the Associated Press, the letter does not threaten immediate legal action but rather serves as a warning to the state that legal action could follow should the state not make any changes.
“The Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate for religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening plan,” the letter advised. “Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.”
The letter refers to a statement issued by Attorney General William P. Barr in April that warned state and local authorities to be careful not to violate the constitutional rights of Americans while enforcing emergency social distancing measures. The letter made specific reference to Americans’ right to worship.
“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 stated.
Later in April, Barr instructed federal prosecutors to “be on the lookout” for instances where state and local ordinances violated constitutional rights.
“The Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis,” he added.
Gov. Newsom has had shaky relations with the state’s faithful since the start of the pandemic, as many have felt that their rights have been infringed upon by strict executive orders. In mid-April, a group of churches in the state even sued the governor over his social distancing ordinances.