Although California rolled out guidance this week to allow for the reopening of churches in the state—with a cascade of restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of coronavirus—pastors of some churches say Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan for houses of worship doesn’t go far enough.
On Monday, churches in the Golden State were given the green light to resume in-person services after weeks of closure.
Those churches that do resume meeting, however, will have a staggering list of requirements from the state in order to promote social distancing, such as limiting attendance to 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less. Church staff, volunteers, and attendees will also be made to wear face coverings, refrain from hugging or shaking hands, limit singing, close off children’s areas, and come up with alternatives for mass-handled items like hymnals or offering plates.
Some houses of worship in the state are eager to resume services under the new guidelines, such as those in the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego.
“They make good sense because frankly they were all included in the work we’ve been doing for the last several weeks planning on the reopening,” Diocesan spokesman Kevin Eckery told KPBS.
South Bay United Pentecostal Church and its senior pastor, Bishop Arthur Hodges III, however, argue that Gov. Newsom and other state and local officials have acted with bias against churches by relegating them to a lower category of “non-essential” services, alongside movie theaters, salons, and gyms and ignoring the preferential treatment due to them according to the First Amendment.
Hodges told KPBS that his church has set up exhaustive safety protocols, even going beyond CDC guidelines.
They include requiring parishioners to go through security where they must answer a variety of questions and submit to a temperature check and mandatory hand sanitizing. Hodges also said the church building has been thoroughly sanitized.
The issue, he said, is that there are no such strict measures required at the places that get to open to 50% capacity.
“Restaurants and retail and shopping malls 50%, factories, no restrictions on how many can be in a factory, other industries, no restriction, offices, for example, no restriction, so once again churches are being singled out for a higher restriction than anyone else,” Hodges said, according to KPBS.
The church, represented by attorneys from South Bay’s Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund and the Thomas More Society, originally filed a request for the church to be open for worship during the pandemic on May 11, 2020. A San Diego federal judge turned them down, and they fast-tracked an emergency appeal up to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals where they lost again.
“But we still need the United States Supreme Court to weigh in on this critical matter to ensure that state or local officials refrain now and forever from governing by decree to curtail constitutional rights,” declared Tom Brejcha, President and Chief Counsel for the Thomas More Society,
Brejcha noted that relief is now sought for next Sunday, May 31, which is Pentecost.
“These most essential liberties and fundamental freedoms are prescribed at the very outset of our Bill of Rights,” Brejcha declared.
The church’s case is now with Barack Obama-appointed Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
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