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The U.S. Department of Justice Friday sent a letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed outlining concerns over a public health policy allowing only one person at time inside places of worship.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California David Anderson penned the letter to Breed saying the policy on places of worship may violate the First Amendment and that The City has treated places of worship differently than secular activities.

In a statement, Dreiband said in a statement that there is no exception for the pandemic in the Bill of Rights, adding:

“That we are dealing with a very serious public health crisis does not permit the government to discriminate against religious worshipers by imposing a one-person-per-house-of-worship rule while permitting larger numbers of people to gather in tattoo parlors, hair salons, massage studios, and other places.”

The letter describes The City’s current policy as “draconian” and says secular businesses, such as barbershops, hair salons and gyms — where there is more contact time with individuals — are allowed to have more people inside their businesses.

The letter says that while they appreciate The City’s goal to allow indoor worship services at 25 percent capacity by end of the month, they believe the limitation would:

“(W)ould continue to burden religious exercise severely and unnecessarily, including for houses of worship with large capacity and room for proper social distancing protocols.”

The letter ends by saying that department is reviewing its legal options and may take further action against The City.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera said to the San Francisco Chronicle in response to the letter:

“Maybe the federal government should focus on an actual pandemic response instead of lobbing careless legal threats.”

Herrera added that The City must be doing something right with the lowest Covid-19 rate for a major city across the nation.

Criticizing The City’s policy on places of worship, Archbishop Salvatore Joseph Cordileone of San Francisco wrote in an opinion piece published The Washington Post on Sept. 16 :

“We want to be partners in protecting the public health, but we cannot accept profoundly harmful and unequal treatment without resisting.”

Religious leaders held a rally the Sunday after the piece was published calling for places of worship to be treated fairly and for congregants to be allowed to access places of worship in a safe manner.

Click here to read to the full DOJ letter.

Jerold Chinn
Jerold Chinn covers transportation and City Hall in San Francisco for SF Bay. Email: jerold@sfbay.ca. Twitter: @Jerold_Chinn. Instagram: jeroldwashere.

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