Despite mass protests and lawsuits, a line was drawn in the sand by Governor Gavin Newsom over the shutdown of houses of worship across the state to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But on May 31st—Pentecost Sunday—up to 3,000 California churches representing 2.5 million members have said that they’ll cross it.
& & & & & “We are not trying to say that churches are somehow exempted from engaging in protective measures that are required of secular enterprises,” said attorney Robert Tyler, who is among those leading the campaign for churches on behalf of Church United, a network of pastors “activating, uniting and transforming culture.”
& & & & & “We are simply saying that it’s unconstitutional to require that churches stay closed when they can engage in the same protective measures as a grocery store, restaurant or other similar businesses.”
& & & & & On Monday, the Governor said that it would be a matter of weeks—not months—until he lifted the order preventing churches from gathering for worship. But that will not be soon enough for the pastors who are set to go next Sunday.
& & & & & An emergency injunction against the ban is set to be decided in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and hundreds of pastors across the state have already signed a petition stating that their services are “essential”.
& & & & & Advocates for Faith & Freedom, The National Center for Law and Policy, Liberty Counsel and Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, and First Liberty — firms representing the hundreds of clergy in California — sent the letter to Newsom.
& & & & & Earlier this month a federal judge ruled that Newsom had the right to ban church services in the interest of public health after a Lodi church—whose locks were changed when they were found to be in violation of the order— filed a lawsuit. But just this week, in a three-page letter to Governor Newsom, Eric Dreiband, who heads up the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, cautioned that his reopening plans “cannot unfairly burden religious services as California has done”.
& & & & & Citing that there was no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights, Dreiband went on to state, “Places of worship are not permitted to hold religious worship services until Stage 3. However, in Stage 2, schools, restaurants, factories, offices, shopping malls, swap meets, and others are permitted to operate with social distancing… This constitutes precisely the kind of differential treatment the Supreme Court identified in the Lukumi decision in which the government is not willing to impose on certain activities the same restrictions it is willing to impose on constitutionally protected religious worship.”
& & & & & “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. 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.”
& & & & & Governor Newsom has had no public comment on the matter since news of the letter surfaced. At a recent news briefing, he told reporters, “Our fear is simply this: congregations of people from far and wide coming together in a closed space at a large scale remains a point of concern and anxiety for us. We are working on guidelines for physical distancing and working with faith leaders talking about unique conditions in their own facilities. Nothing is etched in stone.”
& & & & & Numerous COVID-19 cluster outbreaks have been tied to church services. In April, it was reported that one-third of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Sacramento County had been tied to church gatherings. Two Hispanic congregations in New York City lost more than 100 members between them. The Washington Post recently reported that in Houston and Georgia, two churches indefinitely resuspended their services after members and leaders tested positive for the virus shortly after reopening.
& & & & & The churches who intend to reopen say that they will practice social distancing and other safety precautions to keep their parishioners safe and that by May 31 they will be ready.
& & & & & “The Day of Pentecost is also known as the birthday of the Christian church,” the pastors wrote in the letter to Newsom. “May 31, 2020, is the 1,990th anniversary of the original Day of Pentecost that occurred in the year A.D. 30. We declare that on May 31, 2020, we will resume corporate worship as instructed in Hebrews 10:24- 25.”
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