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'The state does not have authority to intrude into matters of the church'
Church leaders in California continue to object to coronavirus restrictions that they say are unconstitutional infringements on Americans' right to worship.
Appearing on Fox News Wednesday, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone accused the state of "intruding" its authority into church matters by ordering churches not to hold indoor worship services.
Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a new tiered plan to reintroduce coronavirus lockdowns in different regions of the state based on ICU capacity. Because the remaining ICU capacity in Southern California has fallen below 15%, a region-wide stay-at-home order went into effect Sunday, closing several personal care businesses and restricting public and private gatherings.
"We're still not allowed to have indoor services while indoor retail is allowed to operate," Cordileone said on "America's Newsroom," noting that retail stores are permitted to be open at 20% capacity while church worship services are not permitted.
The archbishop argues that if retail and other "essential services" can remain open, churches that practice social distancing and proper sanitation should be allowed to hold worship services indoors as well.
"It's possible for people in these large department stores and retail outlets to spend an hour or two, even three hours inside whereas we can keep our religious services to an hour if necessary and make sure that people are safe," Cordileone explained.
"I accept the need for the state to give us guidance on safety, but we've shown we can do it, we should be allowed to do it," he added.
Conflicts between secular authorities implementing restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 and religious leaders who feel their liberties are in jeopardy have escalated in recent months as the lockdowns have lasted far longer than the initial "15 days to slow the spread" promised last March.
On Tuesday, a church in Northern California was found to be in contempt of court and fined $55,000 for repeatedly defying a court order to stop holding unmasked indoor services. Mike McClure, the pastor of Calvary Chapel Fellowship in San Jose, told reporters, "I respect the judge, I understand what the laws are, but there's a bigger law."
Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Southern California has been an outspoken advocate against coronavirus restrictions. In October, MacArthur released a video calling on churches nationwide to open in defiance of secular mandates and challenging the media, government, and scientific consensus on the severity of the coronavirus.
The United States Supreme Court has become involved in the dispute. Last Thursday, the high court refused to uphold Newsom's restrictions on worship, remanding the case back to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit with instructions to remand to the Central District of California court in light of the decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. In that 5-4 Supreme Court decision, the Supreme Court ruled that New York could not enforce limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in coronavirus hot spots while permitting "essential" businesses to remain open. The court said such restrictions likely discriminate against religion in violation of the First Amendment.
Responding to that ruling on Dec. 3, Archbishop Cordileone issued a statement calling on California to ease restrictions on worship.
"Catholics and other responsible faith communities should not be lumped in with a few irresponsible bad actors. This is not done with anyone else, and it should not be done with people of faith," the statement said. "Worship is not less important than shopping for shoes; it is certainly more important to people's spiritual and psychological health; it is a natural and Constitutional right, and we Catholics have shown for months that we can worship safely — with masks, social distancing, ventilation, and sanitation."
"Let my people worship," Cordileone's statement concluded.
On Fox News, Cordileone expressed frustration with one set of rules for houses of worship and another set of rules for businesses favored by the government.
"It is very frustrating and it's very worrisome because one of the foundational principles of our country is the free exercise and non-establishment clauses of the First Amendment," Cordileone said. "So the state does not have authority to intrude into matters of the church. The state cannot tell the church not to worship."
"Again, I accept that the state can tell the church what we have to do to keep people safe, but it can't be so severe as to in effect ban public worship," he added.
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