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DOJ Warns CA Governor He's Discriminating Against Churches: 'No Pandemic Exemption to the US Constitution'

California Gov. Gavin Newsom. (AP Photo)
California Gov. Gavin Newsom. (AP Photo)

The Department of Justice is warning California Governor Gavin Newsom that his plan to gradually reopen the state discriminates against churches.

In a letter to the governor, the head of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division wrote that some in-person worship services should be allowed.

Eric S. Dreiband pointed out that - unlike churches - restaurants, malls, and other locations are being allowed to reopen gradually. This puts an "unfair burden" on churches and discriminates against religious freedom through "unequal treatment of faith communities," the letter reads.

"Simply put, there is no pandemic exemption to the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights," the letter states.

As of now, Gov. Newsom has allowed the reopening of "lower risk" workplaces like clothing stores, florists, and sporting goods stores under Stage 2 of his plan. This places churches in Stage 3 of the state's reopening plan, which could be weeks or months from now.

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Overall, religious organizations have complied with California's stay-at-home order by canceling in-person worship services and facilitating online services.

But California pastors argue there are public health reasons for reopening churches.

Pastor Matt Brown of Sandals Church in Riverside says his church has called thousands of its attendees and found that many are struggling. 

"We have all kinds of emotional issues that are going on," he said. "We have marital issues in our church. We're seeing a spike in depression, suicide, drug addiction."

And Dr. John Jackson, the president of William Jessup University, a Christian college outside of Sacramento, says people of faith need a human connection right now. "The presence of God matters, but touch matters," he said. "I love technology but it is not a replacement for physical presence and I think we can do so with social distancing."

Attorney Harmeet Dhillon, who has played a leading role in the legal challenges that California churches have faced, says churches have the right to practice their religious faith.

"Literally, this country was founded on the concept that the king cannot tell the peasants how they may worship," Dhillon said. "Gov. Newsom may not tell people of faith that they can only worship in their homes."

Dreiband's letter to Gov. Newsom doesn't threaten a lawsuit but comes across as a warning to The Golden State.

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

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