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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hazel eyes

I believe this virus will NEVER go completely away. We have done an amazing job helping with “flattening the curve”. I also believe it’s time to open businesses/churches WHILE still adhering to the precautions.


commonsenseguy

I appreciate Mr. Dows opinion on this issue. They should be able to if all requirements are met. On top of that, the Constitution says they have that right. Why is it that pot stores and abortion clinics like Planned Parenthood have been deemed essential through all of this? The same Constitutional right they both have aren’t applicable to churches? Abased minds and the taking of a precious innocent lives is essential and acceptable? Interesting thought process. I thought the opposition to church’s reopening is the health, safety and precious lives of people. Hypocrisy? Absolutely.


hazel eyes

Absolutely! People don’t care about the abortion clinics they just want to complain about churches. I’m sure they won’t have a full congregation because most people will stay at home, I see the ones going to church taking precautions. I believe churches should be open before Home Depot, beside fixing something.


IronHub

Would it be cynical to suggest the issue is those empty collection baskets?


info

I worry of the thousands of valley visitors who trash our coastal areas than a few churches who members decide to meet. If dow and police are not enforcing the mas influx of visitors why worry about enforcing outlier churches?

I’ll take social distancing members feeling the need to meet than those defying announcements to stay away.


derasmus

Yes, watch out for those “valley visitors”


Elitist…


aye-caramba

Agree, give people the freedom to make their own choices, good or bad… the scared will cower in their homes, the brave will get out there. Viruses will still be here competing with the other viruses to get a good host…life will go on.


commonsenseguy

Mr. Dow has made a call. I respect that. All churches have had to make choices as well during this virus crisis. Many have had, and continue with on line services. The church I fellowship at has done this for many years. Pastor’s all over are making choices on how to proceed going forward. Faith is very important to many and people have the Constitutional right to seek and express it. Going forward our church services will be going forward outside with seating spaced six feet apart with the health precautions and safety of the highest priority. The Pastor’s and church leadership have the responsibility for the safety of their congregation. From the beginning of the shut down for all, everyone should of been planning and implementing procedures for the reopening of all things including churches. I appreciate the move by Mr. Dow.


slo_resident

Thank you, Dan Dow, for honoring your oath to uphold the Constitution. You have earned my vote 100%.


KAG2020

Finally, someone who knows what the Constitution means and stands by it.


Ted R

Ha! This is hilarious! This is Dow!


mazin

Strongly agree with Dan Dow’s actions to protect the County from litigation due to religious interference. I would add some language with regards that the potential COVID-19 liability is on the religious institution not the County. My habit is to issue “are be aware” or “has something been overlooked” letters, as in the sh!ts on you. This is what we want our County personnel to do. Watch their emails, watch their letters, watch their remarks, and keep the County out of court. Plaintiffs look at the County as deep money, and you and I pay for the mistakes County personnel make. Good job, Dan!

This is the one argument for high County salaries, BUT is there a County educational program how to avoid litigation pitfalls? I doubt it.