‘The Constitution does not only guarantee religious liberty on Easter Sunday, or only to Christians. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right and the government must respect the dignity of all persons, regardless of their faith background, to exercise their faith according to the dictates of one’s conscience.’ ~Attorney Harmeet Dhillon
Last week California Globe reported on the major religious liberty victory for churches in San Bernardino County, thanks to the Center for American Liberty and the Dhillon Law Group, which sent demand letters to Riverside County and San Bernardino County, which had banned all religious services, including Easter services, not online with an April 7th order. “The Order expressly prohibited residents from leaving their homes for drive-in services.” Riverside County had not responded to attorneys Harmeet Dhillon and Mark Meuser when the Globe first reported last week.
Monday, the Center for American Liberty, again in coordination with the Dhillon Law Group, filed a First Amendment lawsuit against Governor Gavin Newsom, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and named San Bernardino county supervisors, Riverside County supervisors, county sheriffs, and county health officers, in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, for criminalizing the free exercise of religion.
“The suit comes days after the Center for American Liberty threatened County Supervisors with such a lawsuit,” the Center reported. “In response, both San Bernardino County and Riverside Counties made limited accommodations for practicing Christians on Easter weekend only.”
San Bernardino’s stay-at-home order was extensive and restrictive:
In an effort to protect the public from further spread of COVID-19, the County’s Acting Health Officer has formally ordered everyone in San Bernardino County to wear a face covering when leaving home.
Face coverings may include coverings that secure to the ears or back of the head and encompass the mouth and nose. Homemade cloth ear loop covers, bandannas and handkerchiefs, and neck gaiters may be used to reduce the spread of COVID-19 particularly among asymptomatic people. Surgical masks and N95 masks must be preserved for healthcare workers and emergency responders.
“Staying home, practicing social distancing and frequent handwashing are far more effective ways to combat the spread of COVID-19, and face coverings are not a substitute for those practices,” said Dr. Erin Gustafson, the County’s Acting Public Health Officer.
Tuesday’s order also says faith-based services must be electronic only through streaming or online technology. People may not leave their homes for driving parades or drive-up services or to pick up non-essential items such as pre-packaged Easter eggs or bags filled with candy and toys at a drive-thru location.
Riverside County’s stay-at-home order was as restrictive:
Drive-up church services that practice proper social distancing will be allowed this weekend in Riverside County, although the order to prohibit such activities will remain after Easter Sunday.
Riverside County even launched a mobile app so residents could rat out “nonessential businesses.”
“Criminalizing individual participation at a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other house of worship clearly violates the First Amendment,” said Harmeet K. Dhillon, Chief Executive Officer for the Center for American Liberty. “The state and localities have granted sweeping exceptions to the shutdown orders for favored businesses and professions, while specifically targeting people of faith and decreeing to religious institutions that it is ‘good enough’ that they be allowed to offer streaming video services. The state does not get to dictate the method of worship to the faithful.”
“This past weekend both San Bernardino County and Riverside County allowed practicing Christians to congregate, in varying capacities, outside their homes to celebrate Easter,” said Dhillon. “While giving in to criticism and respecting Christians’ right to religious liberty on Easter Sunday was undeniably the right decision by County Supervisors, the government may not selectively license religious liberty to Christians on Easter Sunday.”
As the Globe reported last week, “The free exercise of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution, and it is time that government recognize it as such,” attorney Dhillon said. “During a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, religious organizations and services are more important than ever to the faithful, and any arbitrary barriers that purport to assign a second-class importance to religion must fall.”
“If a Californian is able to go to Costco or the local marijuana shop or liquor store and buy goods in a responsible, socially distanced manner, then he or she must be allowed to practice their faith using the same precautions,” Dhillon said.
See the Center for American Liberty website to read the lawsuit. The Globe will continue to report on the state and this religious liberty issue.