In Los Angeles, you could line up at the local marijuana dispensary, purchase liquor, and shop at the local Walmart or Costco during the coronavirus pandemic but you couldn’t gather for church. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, changed that on Monday when he gave in to pressure and relaxed restrictions on in-person worship.
The new state guidelines allowing places of worship to reopen is pending approval from county public health officials. But they must limit attendance to 25 percent of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees—whichever is lower. And it’s still too soon to know which counties will give the go-ahead for in-person worship.
On Wednesday, more than 1,200 Jewish and Christian clergy sent Newsom a letter saying they intended to reopen for worship this coming Sunday and would follow the state and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines for essential businesses. Religious leaders argued the governor’s previous 10-person limit on worship gatherings was unwarranted since he has eased restrictions on businesses.
Newsom also faced continuing court challenges to the worship restrictions. On Thursday, two Calaveras County churches, Mountain Christian Fellowship and Refuge Church, filed a lawsuit challenging the governor’s shelter-in-place order. The next day, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to uphold a decision denying a similar challenge from South Bay United Pentecostal Church near San Diego. In his dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel Collins slammed the state’s “inflexible and overbroad ban on religious services.” The church filed an emergency motion on Saturday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, also a Democrat, capitulated to similar organized pressure. After he allowed retailers to operate at half capacity but capped worship services at 10 people, the state’s Catholic Conference and two local districts of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, which together represent more than 700 churches, told the governor they would resume in-person worship services this week. On Saturday, Walz issued a revised executive order allowing places of worship to open at a generous 25 percent capacity or 250 people, whichever is lower.
Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who wrote the governor and Attorney General Keith Ellison on behalf of the churches, said Walz’s compromise serves as an example for other states to follow. “Churches are not saying ‘we can do whatever we want,’” Rassbach said. “Churches want equal treatment, not special treatment.”
As of Thursday, only eight states prohibited in-person worship or subjected churches to unequal treatment in their reopening plans, according to a Becket survey. One holdout, Nevada, faced a new legal challenge as of Friday. Lawsuits are pending in other restrictive states like Illinois, where Chicago officials threatened Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church with closure under public nuisance laws after it resumed services on May 10.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has renewed its pushback on states that deem worship “nonessential.” In a letter to Newsom on Tuesday, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division criticized California’s “pronounced unequal treatment of faith communities” in its handling of the pandemic. He called for accommodation of religious worship.
President Donald Trump on Friday urged governors to designate worship as “essential” and to allow houses of worship to reopen. Later that day, the CDC released revised recommendations for places of worship after the White House said the first version was too restrictive.