More than 1,200 California pastors say they will defy Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom's shelter-in-place executive order and will resume in-person church services on May 31.
Newsom issued a mandatory statewide stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19 on March 19. California is currently in Phase 2 of its four-stage re-opening plan. Phase 2 allows for the operation of retail (curbside and delivery only), related logistics and manufacturing, office workplaces, limited personal services, outdoor museums, child care, and essential businesses.
Places of worship, gyms, tattoo shops, libraries, and movie theaters are not allowed to reopen in Phase 2. There is a likelihood that those businesses will be allowed to reopen in Phase 3, which could arrive as early as June 1. However, no official date has been set as of yet for Phase 3, and there will likely be restrictions.
Pastors in California are not waiting for the Democratic governor's approval to reopen. A group of more than 1,200 pastors declared that they would open their churches and resume in-person services on May 31, even if the state forbids them to do so.
A lawyer said more than 1,200 pastors have signed a "declaration of essentiality," and will reopen on May 31. The churches plan to adhere to social distancing guidelines and take other coronavirus precautions.
Attorney Robert Tyler wrote a letter to Newsom on behalf of the churches that accused the governor of overlooking the "essential and critical nature of the services provided by clergy and religious assemblies throughout California."
The letter made a note of the quarantine's effect on mental health and referenced a spike in suicides in Tennessee. The letter also quoted a study published by JAMA Psychiatry that said: "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."
"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," the letter stated. "Without the checks and balances of the courts and legislature, the clergy now stand as a counterbalance to unchecked regulatory action."
"This letter was not sent for the purposes of asking for permission," Tyler said.
The attorney expects as many as 3,000 churches across California could reopen on May 31 and offer in-person religious services. Sunday, May 31, is the Christian holy day of Pentecost.
Tyler represents the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi, a church that sued Newsom in April for barring in-person religious services. A federal judge in Sacramento later ruled that Newsom's stay-at-home order was not unconstitutional and that the church was not unfairly targeted.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division told Newsom that his reopening plan discriminates against places of worship.
Eric Dreiband, the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, wrote a letter to Newsom that said the governor's coronavirus executive orders places an "unfair burden" on churches. Dreiband said places of worship should be allowed to resume services in Phase 2 of the state's reopening plan.
"Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights," the letter read.