Justice Department calls on SF to open churches, claims current rule 'may violate First Amendment'

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The Department of Justice sent San Francisco Mayor London Breed a letter Friday, urging her to open up places of worship claiming the current guidance "may violate the First Amendment."

The letter sent by sent by Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, David Anderson, claims the city's current COVID-19 restrictions favors businesses and not houses of worship.

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Currently, outdoor services are permitted with a maximum of 50 people. Mayor London Breed's office says indoor worship services could resume by the end of the month, with 25% capacity.

"No government in this free country can attack religion by transforming a house of worship arbitrarily into a place for solitary confinement. People of faith go to churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places to worship with their fellow believers, and they can do so lawfully because the First Amendment to the United States Constitution makes illegal any effort by government to prohibit the free exercise of religion," said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband.

The letter calls on San Francisco and Mayor Breed to "immediately equalize its treatment of places of worship to comply with the First Amendment."


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It's not the first time the City of San Francisco and the Archdiocese have clashed. In July, the City of San Francisco sent the Archdiocese a letter telling it to stop violating the City's health orders by holding large indoor gatherings.

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Earlier this week, San Francisco's Catholic Archbishop blasted City Hall over these restrictions saying local officials are "mocking God" by refusing to let indoor masses take place.

"Look at the rule of only one person inside a church to pray," said Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone on Friday. "It's very clear that we're being discriminated against"

Cordileone points out that sacraments, like communion, can not be done virtually, though masses have been taking place online.

"People don't have a constitutional right to get a haircut or manicure. But we do have a constitutional right to exercise our religion and most especially to worship," said Cordileone.

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Many churches in San Francisco have been holding in person services outside.

But at Sherith Israel, one of the largest synagogues in San Francisco, they are doing all services virtually.

"I have to say, our attendance is actually up," said Gordon Gladstone, the executive director of Congregation Sherith Israel.

"Judaism prescribes that we value life and the preservation of life above all else."

Gladstone says he does not feel like his religious freedoms have been impinged upon by San Francisco's health orders.

"We would love to be in a place to celebrate in our traditional manner, but we are still able to practice our religion. We are still able to practice the rituals of our religion, albeit in a different form and fashion."

Mayor Breed has yet to comment on the letter.

But San Francisco City Attorney, Dennis Herrera, did respond to the DOJ's letter saying:

"There is a reason that San Francisco has the lowest COVID-19 death rate of any major city in the country. We must be doing something right. Meanwhile, more than 200,000 Americans are dead from this virus. Maybe the federal government should focus on an actual pandemic response instead of lobbing careless legal threats. San Francisco is opening up at the speed of safety. Religious gatherings indoors and outdoors are already set to expand in a few days. This expansion is beyond what is described in the federal government's letter. It's consistent with San Francisco's careful approach and follows closely behind what the State of California allows."

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