Law & the Courts

DOJ Claims California’s Lockdown Shows ‘Unequal Treatment of Faith Communities’

California governor Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference in San Diego, Calif., October 9, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The Department of Justice warned California in a Tuesday letter that the state’s lockdown order “facially discriminates against religious exercise” and that Governor Gavin Newsom’s rulings “do not justify California’s actions” in banning in-person worship.

Eric S. Dreiband, an assistant attorney general and the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, wrote in a three-page letter to Newsom that the state’s determination of “essential” businesses —including in the entertainment and ecommerce industries — showed an “unequal treatment of faith communities.”

“California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential ecommerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden, regardless of whether remote worship is practical or not,” the letter reads.

Newsom said he had “deep admiration to the faith community” on Monday, adding that he acknowledged “the need and desire to know when their congregants can once again start coming back to the pews, coming back together.” But the letter warns that “the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the Reopening Plan.”

Attorney General Bill Barr, who said last month that the Justice Department would “address” any state lockdown orders that “impinge on either civil rights or on the national commerce,” also told religious leaders that the DOJ would not allow the “singling out” of faith communities.

“Standing up for liberty is one of our highest priorities, my highest priorities,” Barr said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided to National Review.

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