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Justice Dept.: California pandemic plan discriminates against churches

Parishioners use a drive-through on April 5 to partake in the sacrament of communion at the Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks, Calif. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Parishioners use a drive-through on April 5 to partake in the sacrament of communion at the Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks, Calif. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

May 20 (UPI) -- The Justice Department has told California Gov. Gavin Newsom that his plan to reopen the state violates the Constitution as it discriminates against churches.

In a letter sent to the governor on Tuesday, Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, said guidelines for reopening from measures put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus should allow churches to conduct limited in-person services similar to other secular businesses.

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According to the state's four-stage plan, churches are allowed to offer faith-based services only through streaming technology while schools, restaurants, factories and businesses may reopen and welcome customers if they enforce social distancing practices.

This discriminates against religious exercise, Dreiband said.

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"Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights," he wrote in the letter.

Dreiband told Newsom the Justice Department is not seeking to tell the state what degree of activity should be allowed to protect its citizens but that they are there to ensure the rules are legal.

"Whichever level of restrictions you adopt, these civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature," he said.

Newsom on Monday announced the easing of lockdown measures that would allow some counties to move to the second phase of California's reopening plan.

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On Tuesday, Assemblymembers Kevin Kiley and James Gallagher submitted a resolution to terminate Newsom's executive powers that he used to institute lockdown measures.

In mid-March, California became the first state to order residents to stay home in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Kiley said their resolution is to "restore a proper balance between the legislative and executive branches."

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"The Emergency Services Act was designed to grant extraordinary powers to a governor under conditions of extreme peril," Kiley said in a statement. "It was not meant to give a single person the ability to remake all of California law indefinitely. An open-ended state of emergency, with boundless powers vested in a chief executive, is incompatible with a democratic government."

The letter was sent amid a rash of legal challenges against states' lockdown orders.

On Monday, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled all executive orders issued by Gov. Kate Brown were "null and void" as she exceeded her authority.

Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Gov. Tony Evers' stay-at-home order, stating his administration had overstepped and excluded the public from the lawmaking process.

Protests in some states have erupted over stay-at-home orders put in place to curb coronavirus infections, which have exceeded 1.5 million in the United States, making it by far the worst-hit country by the pandemic.

In Texas, the state's attorney general, Ken Paxton, warned local governments earlier this month that their emergency measures, such as mandating face coverings, were unlawful.

The litigations follow Attorney General William Barr instructing local prosecutors last month to be on the watch for COVID-19 measures that may violate the Constitution and the rights of citizens.

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