The US Department of Justice has sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom warning him about the state’s plan to reopen churches. Notably, Newsom outlined a reopening plan that would have churches resuming activity after offices and manufacturing. The DOJ’s letter serves to remind the governor that religious services are not to be banned while other, non-religious, non-essential activities are allowed.
Newsom’s office has made no comment on the letter, except that they have received it. It is unclear if the state of California plans to carry through with their current reopening guidelines. In a recent press release, Governor Newsom expressed his respect for California’s faith communities. He stated that it was a matter of “weeks, not months” before in-person services could resume.
California Takes Slow Approach to Reopening
Unlike to some Southeastern states that have moved quickly to reopen, California is taking a slower approach. The state is currently in “Phase II” of its re-opening process. This means that some manufacturing can resume, and curbside pickup for non-essential retail is allowed. The next phase, “Phase III,” is coming in a matter of “weeks” according to Newsom.
Phase III will allow things like hair salons and in-person church services to resume. The DOJ, however, takes issue with that order. Having churches reopen after other non-essential activities is counter to statement by Attorney General William Barr. Barr stated that even state “government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”
The letter, sent to California on Tuesday, states that California “does not appear to treat religious activities and comparable nonreligious activities the same.” This could spark a conflict between the DOJ and California, if neither side blinks in this standoff.
COVID Lockdowns Could Receive Major Court Test
Many churchgoers and business owners have bristled at the COVID-19 lockdown orders. Civil suits filed against local and state governments will test the lockdown measures. Rulings in these cases will be extremely important for the future, as the pandemic is likely to come in waves.
Wisconsin, for instance, saw their Supreme Court throw out the governor’s stay-at-home mandate, throwing the state into a strange situation. There, local ordnances and county laws were a patchwork of varying orders.
Rulings about the legality of ordering businesses to close due to a virus could directly affect future shutdown orders. Should the virus enjoy an upswing in infection, rulings on state and local ordnances could be difficult to bypass.