The Justice Department has warned San Francisco Mayor, London Breed that the city’s limitations on indoor worship to one congregant at a time in response to the COVID-19 pandemic “is contrary to the Constitution and the nation’s best tradition of religious freedom.”
The Justice Department said in its letter to Breed that the city could not limit places of worship to a single congregant while “allowing multiple patrons in other indoor settings including gyms, tattoo parlors, hair salons, massage studios, and daycares”.
Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband and U.S Attorney for the Northern District of California David Anderson said it is reportedly against the Nation’s traditional understanding of religious liberty, and may violate the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The duo also said the limitation is “draconian” and out of step compared with the treatment afforded other similar indoor activities in San Francisco.
The letter pointed out that there is no “pandemic exception” to the Constitution.
“Individual rights, including the protections in the Bill of Rights, are always operative and restrain government action. Thus, even in times of emergency, when reasonable, narrowly-tailored, and temporary restrictions may lawfully limit our liberty, the First Amendment and federal statutory law continue to prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers”.
Dreiband and Anderson added, “Government may not discriminate against religious gatherings compared to other non-religious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest, absent compelling reasons.”
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera responded to the DOJ’s letter by calling it “lobbing careless legal threats”.
Herrera added in a statement to KPIX that San Francisco was “opening at the speed of safety” and that the city planned to allow larger gatherings at churches “beyond what is described in the federal government’s letter”.