Religious leaders and Constitutional Attorneys met at the State Capitol Tuesday to show their support for Senate Bill 397, the “Religion is Essential Act,” for a rally ahead of a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Globe covered the rally earlier in the day where church leaders and faith organizations reminded lawmakers, “No political leader has the right to shut down religion.”
The hearing following the rally was enlightening. Sen. Brian Jones, the bill’s author, explained that the bill would amend the California Emergency Services Act to require that, during a state of emergency, the Governor must declare religious services to be “essential services,” and to curtail the Governor’s discretion in issuing emergency orders relating to religious-based meetings, organizations, and educational institutions.
Jay Bhattacharya, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, research associate at the National Bureau of Economics Research, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration, spoke in support of SB 397. He said he has been doing COVID research, has testified on multiple cases in courts and at the U.S. Supreme Court, and pointed out that the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization guidelines emphasize freedom and the importance of being able to attend church. He said if churches were deemed “essential,” public health officials could have worked with them for safe worship. Bhattacharya added, “church attendance is a key part of a well-lived life for so many.”
And then his testimony was cut off.
Next up was public testimony. There were more than 100 members of the public on the phone waiting to testify in support SB 397. The Senate Judiciary Committee said it would allow 15 minutes each to register support and opposition by the public.
And this keeps happening in legislative committee hearings. Public comments, which were never limited in live, in-person hearings. If 200 members of the public showed up to testify their support or opposition to a bill, they were allowed to give their name, city of residence, and offer “support” or “opposition.” Currently, while it is awkward to have people call in to the legislative hearings to do the same, the Committee Chairmen and women are putting time restrictions on the public testimony, and even cancelling it altogether as happened last week in the Assembly Education Committee, leaving the public completely out of the public part of the legislative process. Committee chairpersons have the latitude to do this now, but that doesn’t make it right or a fair public process.
The 100+ members of the public offered their support for SB 397, and the Senate Judiciary Committee moved next to the opposition. The comment moderator said there were 8 people waiting in the phone queue to testify their opposition to SB 397, and started the calls.
“I never got the opportunity to speak in support,” the first caller said. Four more callers supposedly waiting to offer opposition were actually waiting to testify their support. And then another, and another and another callers were in support, despite Committee Chairman asking every one of the callers if they were calling to give their opposition.
The Globe counted more than 21 callers who were thought to be calling in opposition, but gave their support. And a Bishop of the United Pentacostal Church representing 300 churches, was on the line to testify his support.
“This is not a partisan issue, or a theological issue,” said Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno), a Constitutional Law Professor. “It is a Constitutional issue – a First Amendment Constitutional issue that evokes equal protection.” Borgeas said he was a regular church goer, and took his 93-year old father to church as well. But as the coronavirus spread, even he stopped taking his dad to church out of concern for his vulnerability. But it became clear that with health protocols in place, and outdoor services, it was a realistic option to go back to church.
Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles) agreed. “I completely agree with my colleague that this is about the Constitution,” Hertzberg said. But then he went on to cherry pick old Supreme Court decisions or opinions that interpreted the First Amendment differently.
Hertzberg said, “government has a police power to protect the public.” A political friend said, “I thought Democrats don’t trust police power.”
Hertzberg’s argument wasn’t really relevant, and would have been more effective if he had ended it with “I completely agree with my colleague that this is about the Constitution.”
But the Judiciary Committee voted as if it was a highly partisan issue:
Senator Thomas J. Umberg (D) (Chairman) – voted “no”
Senator Andreas Borgeas (R) (Vice Chairman) – voted “aye”
Senator Anna M. Caballero (D) – said she was not voting.
Senator María Elena Durazo (D) – was not present.
Senator Lena A. Gonzalez (D) – voted “no”
Senator Robert M. Hertzberg (D) – voted “no”
Senator Brian W. Jones (R) – voted “aye”
Senator John Laird (D) – voted “no”
Senator Henry I. Stern (D) – was not present.
Senator Bob Wieckowski (D) – voted “no”
Senator Scott D. Wiener (D) – was not present.
“We knew we faced long odds but still set out to hopefully gain a bipartisan victory for religious freedom,” said Senator Brian W. Jones, author of SB 397. “Instead, the Democrat leadership of the California State Senate gave in to pressure from Governor Newsom. Two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions slapping down Governor Newsom’s dictates against religious freedom were helpful, but they only go so far. Until our state law clearly declares religion is essential, our current Governor and future governors will continue to be able to side-step and undermine our religious freedom.”
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