On Monday, May 25, the county of San Bernardino announced the reopening of places of worship and religious activities under new state guidance issued Monday morning. The guidelines permit churches and other religious activities to reopen with attendance limitations of 25 percent of a building’s capacity or 100 attendees, which ever is lower.
Similar guidelines have also been given for constitutionally protected right to protest, which was also previously prohibited under the state’s coronavirus stay-at-home orders
Gov. Gavin Newsom made the announcement after county governments, civil liberties watchdog organizations, churches and the U.S. Department of Justice expressed dissatisfaction that churches were not being reopened with retail, restaurants and other similar activities and gatherings in stage 2 of the California Reopening Plan.
On Tuesday, May 19, the U.S. Department of Justice sent Newsom a letter warning him that California’s coronavirus stay-at-home orders and the California Reopening Plan presented “several civil rights concerns,” were discriminatory against faith-based communities and were not compatible to the protections of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The letter pointed out that while the list of nonreligious workers and activities that were permitted to reopen in stage 2 of the state’s reopening plan is expansive, including many activities that are comparable to religious activities, religious activities were held under stricter restraints and were not scheduled to reopen until stage 3.
“The Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in stage 2 of the reopening plan,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband.
He also wrote, “There is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
On Friday, May 22, President Donald Trump announced that the Centers for Disease Control have designated houses of worship as essential and provided guidelines for their reopening. Trump issued an order that governors reopen houses of worship as they are reopening business and other sectors.
While the vast majority of large gatherings remain prohibited under the state’s stay-at-home order, the Department of Public Health has released guidelines for in-person protests and events designed for political expression. The guidance limits attendance to 25 percent of an area’s maximum occupancy – or up to 100 attendees.
“Together, our actions have helped bend the curve and reduce infections in our state. As sectors continue to open with changes that aim to lower risk, remember that COVID-19 is still present in our communities,” said Dr. Sonia Angell, state public health officer and director of the California Department of Public Health. “As more of us may be leaving our homes, keeping physical distance, wearing face coverings in public and washing your hands frequently are more important than ever to help protect yourself and those around you.”
The new guidance for religious services and cultural ceremonies encourages organizations to continue online services and activities, including to protect individuals who are most at risk for more severe COVID-19, including older adults and people with specific medical conditions.
To reopen for religious services and funerals, places of worship must:
• Establish and implement a COVID-19 prevention plan for every location, train staff on the plan and regularly evaluate workplaces for compliance.
• Train employees and volunteers on COVID-19, including how to prevent it from spreading and which underlying health conditions may make individuals more susceptible to contracting the virus.
• Implement cleaning and disinfecting protocols.
• Set physical distancing guidelines.
• Recommend that staff and guests wear cloth face coverings and screen staff for temperature and symptoms at the beginning of their shifts.
• Set parameters around or consider eliminating singing and group recitations. These activities dramatically increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. For this reason, congregants engaging in singing, particularly in the choir, and group recitation should wear face coverings at all times and when possible, these activities should be conducted outside with greater than 6-foot distancing.
According to a state press release, in 21 days, the Department of Public Health, in consultation with local departments of public health, will review and assess the impact of the religious services guidelines and provide further direction as part of a phased-in restoration of activities. This 21-day interval accounts for seven days for religious communities to prepare and reopen in addition to a 14-day incubation period of COVID-19.
When reviewing the county’s application for county variance under the state’s stage 2 California Recovery Plan, San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors discussed entreating the governor to relax restrictions on churches and other religious organizations due to their importance to the community.
“Our emotional, mental, spiritual and financial health is tremendously important. The governor is only concerned with our physical health when our overall health requires a balance, and we are, at this point, out of balance,” Supervisor Dawn Rowe said when discussing the importance of including reopening religious activities in the county’s stage 2 plan.
Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Josie Gonzales expressed the need for funeral services to have additional leeway beyond the 10-person limit imposed during stay-at-home orders.
“The California cemetery-mortuary association asked that we consider supporting them in allowing more than 10 family members at their funeral religious serves,” Gonzales said. “They’re unfairly placed in an impossible situation, they feel, similar to the faith-based organizations. In these end-of-life situations it’s a sacred time, a very special time in which politics has no place. And as dear as public health is they feel it has no place to be telling them what to do in their life mission, ministering to people who’ve many times lost hope and are full of stress, and they feel helpless and [that they] are falling short in their mission to minster.”
On Wednesday, May 20, Advocates for Faith and Freedom, the National Center for Law and Policy, Liberty Counsel and Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund and First Liberty sent a “Declaration of Essentiality” letter to Newsom advising him that more than 1,200 pastors, clergy and other religious leaders intend to reopen in-person religious services beginning May 31 with social distancing. The letter requested that the governor’s coronavirus executive order be revised to avoid conflict with the churches’ intention to exercise their First Amendment religious liberties.