/DOJ warns California that re-opening could discriminate against religious groups

DOJ warns California that re-opening could discriminate against religious groups

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department on Tuesday put California Gov. Gavin Newsom on notice, claiming that his plan for the state’s staggered re-opening from the threat posed by the coronavirus discriminates against religious groups and a return to in-person worship services.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, chief of the department’s Civil Rights Division, warned the governor that places of worship were being forced to take a back seat to a gradual resumption of operations at schools, restaurants, offices and shopping malls.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announces criteria for coronavirus hospitalizations and testing that could allow counties to open faster, during a news conference in Napa, Calif., Monday May 18, 2020.

Dreiband, in a letter to the governor, cast the policy as “differential treatment” that unfairly singled out religious worship for restrictions that the state would not impose on other activities.

“The Department of Justice does not seek to dictate how states such as California determine what degree of activity and personal interaction should be allowed to protect the safety of their citizens,” the letter states. “However, we are charged with upholding the Constitution and federal statutory protections for civil rights. Whichever level of restrictions you adopt, these civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature.”

California authorities did not immediately respond to Justice’s action.

But the warning to California marks an expansion of Justice’s intervention in states where religious services have been restricted by executive orders aimed at controlling the virus’ spread.

Justice intervenes in Virginia:DOJ sides with church in challenge to coronavirus state order limiting gatherings in Virginia

‘Discrimination’ at Miss., church service:DOJ sides with Mississippi church in COVID-19 challenge; church accuses police of discrimination

Earlier this month, Justice sided with a Virginia church in its challenge to a state shutdown order limiting the size of religious gatherings, claiming it violated constitutional guarantees of free expression.

Federal authorities moved in the Virginia case after a pastor was cited by local police for hosting a service attended by 16 people – six more than allowed for such in-person gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, the government joined the side of a Mississippi church after congregants were issued citations for attending a drive-in service.

The Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Attorney General William Barr signaled early in the health emergency that Justice would be scrutinizing state policies that could be interpreted as overly restrictive.

“Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times have become commonplace in recent weeks, and we do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public,” Barr wrote in a memo to federal prosecutors. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected.”