Religious leaders and Constitutional Attorneys met at the State Capitol Tuesday to show their support for Senate Bill 397, the “Religion is Essential Act,” a bill to codify into law decisions the U.S. Supreme Court has recently and repeatedly made to protect religious practice in California, despite Gov. Gavin Newsom ordering the indefinite closure of churches during the coronavirus statewide lockdown.
When California Governor Gavin Newsom assumed Emergency Powers during the announced state of emergency over the coronavirus, he declared religious services to be “non-essential services,” while simultaneously declaring big box stores “essential services.”
That was more than one year ago after first promising the state shutdown would be 14 days to “flatten the curve” to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
During the year, many churches and religious leaders found themselves on the receiving end of aggressive local and state officials threatening to alter their tax exempt status, imposing hefty fines, and attempting to shut them down for holding services – some in tents, some outside, with masks, properly distanced, and adhering to health protocols.
Consequently, many churches ended up having to sue the governor and the California Attorney General to have their First Amendment rights recognized – not restored, but recognized and acknowledged.
The First Amendment is very simple: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Big box stores don’t have First Amendment rights, but churches, synagogues, shrines, mosques, and temples do, which is really at the ironic heart of the five different lawsuits ruled upon by the Supreme Court of the United States. The last of five Supreme Court rulings was handed down Friday when the Court struck down California’s ban on home Bible studies in Tandon vs. Newsom. And the Supreme Court clobbered the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in nearly every case.
The Supreme Court explained:
“First, California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time.”
“Second, the Ninth Circuit did not conclude that those activities pose a lesser risk of transmission than applicants’ proposed religious exercise at home. The Ninth Circuit erroneously rejected these comparators simply because this Court’s previous decisions involved public buildings as opposed to private buildings.”
“Third, instead of requiring the State to explain why it could not safely permit at-home worshipers to gather in larger numbers while using precautions used in secular activities, the Ninth Circuit erroneously declared that such measures might not ‘translate readily’ to the home. The State cannot ‘assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work.’”
“And fourth, although California officials changed the challenged policy shortly after this application was filed, the previous restrictions remain in place until April 15th, and officials with a track record of ‘moving the goalposts’ retain authority to reinstate those heightened restrictions at any time.”
Lastly, the SCOTUS explained: “Applicants are likely to succeed on the merits of their free exercise claim; they are irreparably harmed by the loss of free exercise rights ‘for even minimal periods of time’; and the State has not shown that ‘public health would be imperiled’ by employing less restrictive measures. Accordingly, applicants are entitled to an injunction pending appeal. This is the fifth time the Court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise.”
Senator Brian Jones (R-Santee) authored Senate Bill 397 to codify the Supreme Court’s decision into state law, and to curtail this Governor’s discretion, and that of future governors, in issuing emergency orders relating to religious-based meetings, organizations, and educational institutions.
The bill provides that, during a state of emergency or local emergency, the governor, and state and local governments do not take a discriminatory action against a religious organization, and permit religious organizations to continue operating and engaging in religious services, to the same or greater extent that other organizations or businesses that provide essential services that are necessary and vital to the health and welfare of the public are permitted to operate.
Organized by the California Family Council, several Pastors spoke at a rally Tuesday, about making the decision after the “two weeks to flatten the curve” to continue to hold services and exercise their First Amendment right of religious liberty. And they were targeted. They spoke of how it was more important than ever to provide a sanctuary for people in distress during the lockdown, as well as for those whose loved ones were ill, or had passed away. Pastor Greg Farrington said the governor acted as if COVID only lives in churches and not at COSTCO. “The people wanted to worship together and not online,” Farrington said. “And they wanted to express their First Amendment right.”
“The governor woke up a sleeping giant,” Farrington added. “We will never ask permission to express our rights again.”
“Five times the Supreme Court has told California ‘no,’ and yesterday the DOJ removed the mandate (to operate at partial capacity), to operate at full capacity,” Jonathan Keller, President of California Family Council said at the rally. “No political leader has the right to shut down religion.”
SB 397 is being heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. The Globe will follow up after the hearing.
This bill is sponsored by the California Family Council, Capitol Resource Institute, Judeo-Christian Caucus, and Real Impact, and it is supported by a number of faith-based organizations and 7,002 individuals. The bill is opposed by American Atheists and the Health Officers Association of California.
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