On Wednesday, lawyers representing more than 1,200 California clergy sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.), declaring religious services essential during the coronavirus pandemic and announcing that churches will start meeting in person on May 31 — the Day of Pentecost referred to as the birthday of the Christian church — with or without the governor’s permission.
“The Day of Pentecost is also known as the birthday of the Christian church. May 31, 2020 is the 1,990th anniversary of the original Day of Pentecost that occurred in the year A.D. 30. We declare that on May 31, 2020, we will resume corporate worship as instructed in Hebrews 10:24- 25,” the clergy wrote. “Facing the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Christian church and other faiths have been relegated to ‘nonessential’ status by governing agencies throughout the United States. But we, the signers of this declaration, believe and contend that gathering together in fellowship and worship is ‘essential.’”
The current California lockdown order considers religious services nonessential. The clergy — including pastors and at least one rabbi — sent a “Declaration of Essentiality,” explaining that religious services and their charitable activities are just “as essential as any grocery store or hardware store,” especially in a crisis where depression, as well as disease, threatens lives.
Advocates for Faith & Freedom, The National Center for Law and Policy, Liberty Counsel and Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, and First Liberty — firms representing the hundreds of clergy in California — sent the letter to Newsom, representing a demand that the governor either alters his order or receives notice that it will be violated on a massive scale.
The letter notes the societal devastation the coronavirus and the lockdowns have caused, including the fact that in Knox County, Tenn., more people died from suicide than from COVID-19 over a week period. It also cites a Kaiser Family Foundation that found 45 percent of adults say the pandemic has affected their mental health, while the Disaster Distress Helpline reported an 891 percent increase in March 2020 over the previous March.
“The mandated closure of religious organizations is having a significant and detrimental secondary effect on the citizens of California. For example, the closure of religious organizations is preventing the numerous ministries and social services provided by churches to the poor, unemployed and distressed. The humanitarian and spiritual support provided by ministries are innumerable,” the letter argues.”The spiritual services of ministries are absolutely essential to the health and welfare of the people of California.”
A recent JAMA Psychiatry study found that “religious service attendance is associated with a lower risk of death from despair among registered nurses and health care professionals. These results may be important in understanding trends in deaths from despair in the general population.”
Yet Newsom’s order does not regard religious organizations as essential, and therefore it singles them out for special restrictions. This targeting of religious groups is unconstitutional, the letter claims, and the clergy — like all Americans — have the duty to stand up for their constitutional rights.
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“The clergy is convinced that ‘we the people’ are ultimately responsible to protect the individual liberties that may be lost unnecessarily during times of crisis regardless of whether public officials’ actions are well intentioned. Without the checks and balances of the courts and legislature, the clergy now stand as a counterbalance to unchecked regulatory action,” the letter argues.
“With you, we struggle with finding the right balance of public safety and individual liberty considering the effects of COVID-19 and the clergy we represent collectively agree to pray for you as our governor to receive divine guidance and consider why we believe your Executive Order is unconstitutional, but more importantly, detrimental to the health and safety of California families,” the lawyers add.
Newsom’s executive order “carves out a very long list of ‘secular’ exceptions representing persons and places that are exempt from the stay at home prohibitions. The exempted persons and facilities include most governmental operations. The list also includes, among other locations: airports; public transportation facilities (i.e. train and bus stations); the entertainment industry (i.e. Hollywood); construction sites, news media facilities; childcare locations; marijuana dispensaries; liquor stores; cafeterias; big box stores, grocery stores, farmer’s markets, convenience stores, carry out restaurants and other retails establishments where large numbers of people gather and assemble.”
The lawyers argue, “We have no desire to see any businesses closed; however, the ECIW reflects upon the arbitrary nature of determining what businesses are ‘essential.’ To the chagrin of religious observers, religious organizations are generally deemed nonessential by the State and County.”
The letter claims that such an order violates the First Amendment to the Constitution. While governments may restrict foundational liberties during a crisis, they may not single out religious groups for adverse treatment. “The Executive Order violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution because the Order is not narrowly tailored to serve the County’s interest in preventing the spread of Coronavirus,” the letter argues.
The clergy have no intention of helping to spread the coronavirus, and the letter insists that “we fully support reasonable measures to help flatten the curve and the faith leaders take their responsibility to do so seriously.” Even when churches and synagogues meet on May 31, the letter promises that “all services will be held in compliance with CDC and state guidelines for social distancing as is required of ‘essential businesses.’”
The declaration and the letter carry tremendous weight and are likely to prevail in court. Newsom should alter his executive order to consider religious services essential, or he will face a mass uprising of at least 1,200 clergy on May 31.
Perhaps the strongest part of the clergy’s argument is the claim that they are essential for the mental and societal health of Californians. A recent study has found that coronavirus anxiety threatens more health damage than the lockdowns can possibly hope to save. With millions out of work and many more facing an uncertain future along with a deadly plague, the hope and security that faith provides are arguably more important than ever. If liquor stores are essential in this crisis, then churches and synagogues should also be on the list.
Read the full “Declaration of Essentiality” below:
The Day of Pentecost is also known as the birthday of the Christian church. May 31, 2020 is the 1,990th anniversary of the original Day of Pentecost that occurred in the year A.D. 30. We declare that on May 31, 2020, we will resume corporate worship as instructed in Hebrews 10:24- 25.
Facing the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Christian church and other faiths have been relegated to “nonessential” status by governing agencies throughout the United States. But we, the signers of this declaration, believe and contend that gathering together in fellowship and worship is “essential.”
As ministers of the Gospel, we have complied with the orders of governing bodies to cease meeting in-person as has been our practice for nearly 2000 years since the first Day of Pentecost. We respect the governing authorities and their role in public safety. However, the governing authorities have suspended our meetings indefinitely, refusing to provide a date upon which we can lawfully commence our practice of worshiping God together in our houses of worship. While we are thankful to the governing authorities for the significant efforts made to protect the public from COVID-19, the remaining threat of COVID-19 is outweighed by the severe restrictions upon the free exercise of our religion that we deem “essential.” We are committed to public safety and will follow reasonable guidelines established and applied to similarly situated organizations.
Fundamental to the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion is the right to gather and worship. 1 The First Amendment requires that the burden imposed on the free exercise of religion be narrowly tailored to serve the governmental interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Here, just as occurred in the U.S. Supreme Court case entitled Church of the Lukumi Balalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, the government’s “proffered objectives are not pursued with respect to analogous non-religious conduct, and those interests could be achieved by narrower ordinances that burdened religion to a far lesser degree.” 2 The current governmental orders are not narrowly tailored here because innumerable secular enterprises and places where people gather are deemed essential, including those that pose even greater risks of COVID-19 than religious assemblies.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.
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