A civil liberties law group representing churches in Riverside County Monday lambasted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order again prohibiting indoor services at houses of worship based on rising coronavirus case numbers, saying religious services are “paramount” in times of crisis and suggesting churches that defy the order would have legal support.
“The state’s actions today impose another significant setback to the desperately needed social services that are provided by religious organizations,” said attorney Robert Tyler with Murrieta-based Advocates for Faith & Freedom. “We have (a) mental health crisis that is just as significant as COVID-19. Many churches and synagogues will now be forced to shutter their support groups, counseling and humanitarian relief.”
Newsom ordered that, along with houses of worship, restaurants, gyms, wineries, malls and other facilities close all indoor operations, leaving open the possibility of limited outdoor activities. The governor cited the upswing in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in 30 counties, including Riverside, as the basis for the clamp-down.
In late May, he relaxed public health orders to permit indoor religious services after more than two months of legal battles and several high-profile wins at the federal level for entities challenging restrictions on worship services in other states. The governor insisted that social distancing and other safety practices — including a 100-person cap on gatherings — be observed. But some pastors vowed to ignore the size limitations in deference to the needs of their parishioners.
On July 1, the California Department of Public Health, through the governor, directed that no chanting or singing occur during worship services because of elevated risks of viral transmission.
“That order was unprecedented, especially after the widespread support that public officials gave to protesters, who ignored social distancing and face mask requirements,” Tyler said. “Now, the state says religious organizations in 80% of the state must meet outdoors, if at all, and gave discretion for local government to issue greater restrictions on outdoor meetings. Is a worship service any less protected under the First Amendment than a protest? Are the social services provided by a church any less important than those provided through a government office? No.
“The freedom of worship is of paramount importance, and we will support churches who provide services as their faith sincerely dictates, so long as they do not provide their services recklessly,” the attorney said. “We encourage religious leaders to stand on principle, serve their community and worship God in the manner dictated by their faith.”
In May, more than 1,500 clergy statewide signed a Declaration of Essentiality sent to the governor’s office. The signatories pointed to recent studies indicating major mental health impacts, including suicides, connected to stay-at-home orders and job losses as examples of why positive reinforcement from churches is vital.
“The closure of religious organizations is preventing the numerous ministries and social services provided by churches to the poor, unemployed and distressed,” according to the declarants. “The humanitarian and spiritual support provided by ministries are innumerable.”
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