The Justice Department is attacking San Francisco’s “draconian” restrictions on the number of people allowed at one time into houses of worship.
The city currently allows no more than one congregant at a time in any church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship, regardless of its size.
“No government in this free country can attack religion by transforming a house of worship arbitrarily into a place for solitary confinement,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, according to a Friday DOJ news release.
“People of faith go to churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places to worship with their fellow believers, and they can do so lawfully because the First Amendment to the United States Constitution makes illegal any effort by government to prohibit the free exercise of religion,” Dreiband said.
“That we are dealing with a very serious public health crisis does not permit government to discriminate against religious worshipers by imposing a one-person-per-house-of-worship rule while permitting larger numbers of people to gather in tattoo parlors, hair salons, massage studios, and other places,” he added.
“There is no pandemic exception to the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
In contrast to the limit of one congregant per house of worship, gyms, tattoo parlors, hair salons, massage studios and daycare centers can have multiple people present at any one time, as the DOJ pointed out.
A Friday letter to Democratic San Francisco Mayor London Breed from Dreiband and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California David Anderson said that “San Francisco’s treatment of places of worship raises serious concerns about religious freedom.
“In particular, the limitation of indoor worship to one congregant without regard to the size of the place of worship is draconian, out of step with the treatment afforded other similar indoor activities in San Francisco, wholly at odds with this Nation’s traditional understanding of religious liberty, and may violate the First Amendment to the Constitution,” the letter said.
The letter tried to educate San Francisco about the Constitution.
“The First Amendment protects religious observers against unequal treatment,” it said.
“Government may not discriminate against religious gatherings compared to other nonreligious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest, absent compelling reasons.”
“The Health Order provides no reasoned explanation why its one-size-fits-all limit on indoor religious gatherings, regardless of size, is necessary or appropriate. This policy is not equal treatment,” the letter said, adding that “this restriction suggests hostility to religious people and the free exercise of religion.”
The letter noted that rules for barber shops, nail salons, massage locations and tattoo parlors allow them to accommodate more people at one time than houses of worship.
“These rules plainly discriminate against people of faith and their ability to gather and practice their faith at churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship,” the letter said.
“Put simply, there is no scientific or legal justification for permitting a 20,000 square foot synagogue to admit only one worshipper while allowing a tattoo parlor to accommodate as many patrons as it can fit so long as they are six feet apart. This is not the kind of reasonable, temporary, and narrowly tailored regulation to protect public health and safety that can justify infringements on fundamental rights such as religious freedom.”
The city’s goal of upping the limit to 25 people as of the end of the month “would also continue to disadvantage religious exercise compared to the permitted secular indoor activities described above,” Dreiband and Anderson wrote.
The letter closed by asking the city to “change its current standards to bring them in line with the Constitution and our nation’s best traditions of free religious exercise.”
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera was unmoved, pointing to the low coronavirus infection rate in the city.
“We must be doing something right,” he said, according to Fox News.
Herrera said the federal government “should focus on an actual pandemic response instead of lobbing careless legal threats. San Francisco is opening up at the speed of safety.”
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