(The Center Square) – The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) filed a federal lawsuit against California Gov. Gavin Newsom on behalf of two churches in Calaveras County, alleging his executive orders do not provide equal treatment under the law and violate the First Amendment.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, seeks a restraining order on the Governor’s order that prohibits religious assembly.
In the governor’s May 4 executive order outlining the four stages for reopening the state, schools can reopen in phase 2 but churches cannot, PJI notes.
“These churches are not asking for preferential treatment from the State, but for equal treatment,” Kevin Snider, PJI chief counsel, said in a statement. “No compelling state interest exists to apply different standards to a schoolhouse and a church. Instead of separating them like sheep from the goats, identical health and safety rules for both institutions could be put in place by the State.”
Rural churches in Calaveras County, Mountain Christian Fellowship and Refuge Church, have complied with the stay-at-home orders and have not held in-person services.
Just days before, Newsom said at Monday’s press briefing, "I want to just express my deep admiration to the faith community and the need and desire to know when their congregants can once again start coming back to the pews, coming back together.”
Newsom gave no date as to when that might happen despite significantly low rates of infection and spread of the coronavirus across most of the state.
According to the state department of public health, as of May 20, there are 86,197 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state, of which 3,048 have been hospitalized and 3,542 have died. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and death represent .002 percent and .00008 percent of the population, respectively.
On Tuesday, Eric Dreiband, head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, wrote in a three-page letter that Newsom’s order puts an "unfair burden" on religious institutions, and amounts to "unequal treatment of faith communities."
"Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights," Drieband emphasized.
Referring to the state’s reopening plan, "This facially discriminates against religious exercise," Drieband wrote. "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."
This is the third time the U.S. Justice Department has intervened over state or local orders targeting churches. On April 14, Barr issued a statement of interest on behalf of a Mississippi church defying a local order that banned drive-in services. On May 19, the Justice Department issued a statement of interest on behalf of a church suing Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s order prohibiting in-person services.
Drieband’s letter highlights four religious liberty cases, three of which were filed by The Center for American Liberty: Gish v. Newsom on April 13, 2020; South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom on May 11, 2020 (in coordination with Limandri & Jonna and the Thomas More Society), and Abiding Place Ministries v. Wooten (co-counsel with Freedom X).
“We appreciate the Justice Department’s support for our clients’ position, and sincerely hope that Governor Newsom will immediately cease relegating faith gatherings to third-class status,” Harmeet K. Dhillon, Chief Executive Officer of the Center for American Liberty, said in a statement. “For people of faith, religious worship is as ‘essential’ to them as eating and breathing. During times of crisis, people need their faith and community support more than ever, and the right to free exercise of religion is a fundamental precept of our nation’s organizing laws that may not be 'cancelled,' even in a health crisis.”
Two Republican state lawmakers introduced a resolution to curtail the governor’s emergency powers on Tuesday.
Assemblyman Kevin Kiley said executive order powers were designed to be used “under conditions of extreme peril” and “were not meant to give a single person the ability to remake all of California law indefinitely.”