A law firm specializing in religious freedoms urged Los Angeles County officials Wednesday to drop a health order barring residents from observing religious holidays with extended family and friends at home due to the possible spread of COVID-19.
The county’s updated Sept. 13 health officer order prohibits “having a meal with extended family and friends for a religious or cultural holiday,” a reference to the Jewish holidays, the First Liberty Institute alleges.
Those holidays, the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, fall between Rosh Hashanah, which begins on Friday, and Yom Kippur, which starts on Sept. 27 and ends the next evening.
“Although now hiding behind obscured language, the ban on celebrating the High Holidays with others remains,” writes Stephanie Taub, senior counsel with First Liberty, which is based in Plano, Texas.
In a letter sent Wednesday to Los Angeles County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis and County Counsel Mary Wickham, Taub says the county “has not vigorously policed its stated ban on small gatherings with friends or extended family. Yet, despite the county’s lack of enforcement, the county’s policy threatens enforcement against the upcoming holiday of a religious minority faith.”
A section of the county’s current health order states that “individual and family gatherings or parties of any size aren’t allowed” and gives the example of “having a meal with extended family and friends for a religious or cultural holiday.”
In the Sept. 2 order, before the wording was revised, the example given was “having dinner with extended family and friends to honor the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur).”
Both versions are included as exhibits with First Liberty’s letter.
“The policy has since been changed to prohibit `having a meal with extended family and friends for a religious or cultural holiday,”’ Taub wrote.
“Although now hiding behind obscured language, the threatened enforcement remains. Violations of local health orders are a crime, punishable by fines or imprisonment.”
While not responding specifically to First Liberty’s allegations, a Los Angeles County spokesperson said the county recognizes that religious services “are central to many of our residents’ lives, especially in these trying times, and religious services have been allowed to be held online and outdoors with physical distancing and the use of face coverings, and they may continue to be held with those public health safeguards in place.”
First Liberty client Rabbi Yisrael Gelb said the protocol involving small gatherings “is profoundly disrespectful and disappointing. I plan on honoring the High Holidays as I do every year, by sharing a table with a local family in my congregation. We urge the county to reverse its policy and allow us to celebrate our most holy days in peace and safety.”