The Department of Justice sent a letter to the city of San Francisco on Friday warning them that their “one congregant” policy, under which only one member of the public is allowed in a place of worship at a time, regardless of the size of the building, was raising questions about the right to exercise religious freedoms in the city.
“San Francisco’s treatment of places of worship raises serious concerns about religious freedom,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney David Anderson in the letter. “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.”
“No government in this free country can attack religion by transforming a house of worship arbitrarily into solitary confinement,” said Dreiband in a separate DOJ statement posted on Friday, later adding: “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. There is no pandemic exception to the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
To bolster its claim that San Francisco appears to be discriminating against people of faith, the department pointed to the fact that gyms are allowed to be open at 10% capacity indoors, and many retail stores are allowed to open at 50% capacity.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera told the San Francisco Chronicle, in response to the letter, that the federal government should consider focusing “on an actual pandemic response instead of lobbing careless legal threats.”
Herrera also argued that San Francisco is due to expand its coronavirus restriction guidelines for houses of worship in several days because there hasn’t been a surge of infections in the city, reports the news agency.
According to the DOJ letter to the city, the federal government will be “reviewing its options and may take further action” in order to protect religious liberties.
San Francisco was the first U.S. city to issue a shelter-in-place order for the coronavirus back in March, and has been subject to restrictions for longer than many other U.S. cities.
Back in mid-September, Salvatore Joseph Cordileone, the archbishop of San Francisco, published an op-ed in The Washington Post saying he “never expected” that the right to worship would be “unjustly repressed by an American government.”
But that is exactly what is happening in San Francisco. For months now, the city has limited worship services to just 12 people outdoors. Worship inside our own churches is banned. The city recently announced it will now allow 50 for outdoor worship, with a goal of permitting indoor services up to a maximum of 25 people by Oct. 1 — less than 1 percent of the capacity of San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.
This is not nearly enough to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of Catholics in San Francisco. In imposing these restrictions, the city is turning a great many faithful away from their houses of prayer.
The San Francisco city attorney has since told the Chronicle that indoor worship services may host as many as 50 people at a time beginning in October.
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