SLO County District Attorney will not prosecute those attending religious services

May 22, 2020

SLO District Attorney Dan Dow

Open letter from San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow

Dear Leaders and Members of the Faith Community,

Shortly after Gov. Gavin Newsom began issuing orders in response to COVID-19, I began fielding inquiries from leaders in the faith community concerned about the impact on their congregations. While understanding the need for social distancing, many expressed the importance of corporate gatherings to the vitality of their communities.

While most congregations have adapted by using remote video platforms, some were not able to do so. Further, it is beyond dispute that these are poor substitutes for in-person gatherings and corporate worship. Understanding these are extraordinary times, congregations in this county have worked hard to follow the temporary emergency orders.

As the governor began implementing his reopening plan, concerns were raised about the plan not allowing in-person religious services to resume in Stage 2 while other sectors of the community are (and have been) permitted to reopen so long as they employ social distancing and similar precautions. The concerns have been raised not only by religious institutions, but also by the Department of Justice.

Of particular significance, on May 19, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, of the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice, sent a letter to Governor Newsom questioning whether treatment of religious activities under California’s reopening plan violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The letter quotes a recent statement by Attorney General William Barr who was at the time addressing restrictions on worship in Mississippi:

“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.

Assistant A.G. Dreiband goes on to state “Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”

The District Attorney’s Office is one of the agencies responsible for enforcing public health orders. As such, several weeks ago I directed our Public Integrity Unit to monitor federal and state decisions and to conduct legal research of whether restrictions on in-person religious services are Constitutional.

We have concluded that the legal landscape remains unsettled due to conflicting decisions in various jurisdictions. Until there is further clarification from higher courts, this office will not seek criminal enforcement for alleged violations involving those who meet in-person for religious purposes during Phase 2 of the reopening plan so long as social distancing and other health guidelines are followed.

My position as we await further clarity is to err in favor of religious freedom protected by our Bill of Rights in light of the concerns raised by the Department of Justice letter referenced above and attached here for your review.

Spiritual health is a pillar of a healthy and well-balanced society that values Liberty. Thank you for your valuable contributions towards making our community vibrant and resilient.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge and thank the United States Attorneys here in California who are working hard to protect our communities and protect our civil rights guaranteed to us under the United States Constitution.

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It appears the SLO County DA has received further clarification from a higher court– in fact, the highest court in the land! Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with Governor Newsom in restricting attendance at religious services.

From the San Francisco Chronicle, May 30, 2020:

“With a deciding vote from Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court late Friday allowed Gov. Gavin Newsom to restrict attendance at religious services in California to 25% of the capacity of a house of worship because of the coronavirus.”

SLO County has seen continued increases in the number of COVID–19 related cases. As of June 5, 291 cases were reported on the County’s website. We should all should take this pandemic seriously. Being responsible for our own health, and the health of others, should be an absolute priority; common sense dictates nothing less.

Many church services are being conducted via Zoom, or other telephonic means. People of faith can pray in their homes, their gardens, on a walk among the many trails and spectacular beaches we are so fortunate to have in SLO County. And for people of faith, isn’t God everywhere?

May all be safe and well!

Kevin Rise’s posts read like an Adam Hill email.