After DOJ’s Warning Letter, California Governor Releases Guidelines for Church Re-Openings

Governor Gavin Newsom included houses of worship in his executive order banning non-essential businesses in California during the COVID-19 crisis. The order limited in-person services to no more than 10 people. Some businesses began re-opening on May 5 as part of the state’s four-stage plan.

Churches, however, were not included in the first stage. They fall under stage three, which could be weeks away — or months. Over 1200 pastors in California say they will not wait that long and will open on May 31.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights last week sent a letter (PDF) to Gov. Newsom, reminding him of the implications of the government restrictions on religious services. While recognizing the state’s duty to protect residents’ health and safety, treating religious activities equally with comparable nonreligious activities may violate the Free Exercise Clause. The DOJ’s letter concluded:

Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true now more than ever. 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.

The governor subsequently told new sources the state was “weeks away” from allowing churches to re-open. It appears the governor might consider moving churches from the stage three to stage two category.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) this week announced guidelines for church re-openings.

Under new guidance, places of worship can hold religious services and funerals that limit attendance to 25% of a building’s capacity – or up to 100 attendees, whichever is lower – upon approval by the county department of public health.

Additionally, churches must set distancing protocols, take people’s temperature, and screen them for other COVID-19 symptoms. Among other guidelines, everyone must wear masks. CDPH recommends that churches consider eliminating singing and group recitations.

One church in California filed an emergency request this week asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block enforcement of the order as it applies to churches. Bishop Arthur Hodges, pastor of South Bay Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista, previously asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to allow his church to reopen without the restrictions, but the court refused the request. From Fox 5 (emphasis added):

“We’re asking for the U.S. Supreme Court once and for all, you are the supreme authority of the land. Make a ruling that’s just not for all sake, but all churches sake, not just for California’s sake, all across America we need a ruling in this matter,” said Hodges.

Despite the fact that Newsom gave the clearance for churches to reopen, Hodges is still moving forward with the lawsuit since they’re limited to 25% of its capacity or 100 people, whichever is less.

“We still have a problem here because that is a clear discrimination against churches because no other enterprise in California has those restrictions placed on them, only churches. This is a clear violation of our constitutional rights to free exercise in assembly,” Hodges said.

The churches planning to re-open on May 31 will follow CDC guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons) – Some rights reserved

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