Earlier this week, the Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco, released a statement calling on the city’s Mayor London Breed; Director of Public Health Dr. Grant Colfax; and San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Tomas Aragon to “ease unfair restrictions on public worship in San Francisco” and to, “at a minimum, remove the excessive limits on outdoor public worship.”
San Francisco, Archbishop Cordileone noted, “is the only government in the entire Bay Area that restricts public gatherings to 12 people out of doors. Ours and others’ faith is being treated as less important than a trip to the hardware store, or a nice dinner out on the patio.”
Archbishop Cordileone’s statement is his most recent attempt to bring attention to the inequitable treatment the City’s churches have received from a recalcitrant administration apparently intent on preventing churches and faith communities from gathering. At the same time that churches in San Francisco are prevented from holding even outdoor gatherings of more than a dozen people, the City has been allowing indoor retail stores to operate at 50 percent capacity and outdoor patio dining. San Francisco County is now allowing restaurants to reopen at 25% of dining capacity (but cannot serve more than 100 indoor guests.)
And yet the City has encouraged unlimited attendance at organized local street protests. In fact, while churches are shuttered in San Francisco, there have been dozens of street protests populated by thousands of unmasked protesters. According to community websites, there are many more protests planned for the upcoming weeks. On September 3rd, protestors were encouraged to March to Defund the SFPD at Mission High School. On Saturday, September 5th, there is the United Nationwide Protest to “Demand Trump Pence Out Now!” at Embarcadero Plaza from Noon to 2pm. And on Sunday, September 6th—the same day that Archbishop Cordileone will only be allowed to invite a dozen parishioners to attend an outdoor Mass—there will be a George Floyd Memorial Sunset Beach Stroll on San Francisco’s prettiest beach.
If Archbishop Cordileone attempted to offer Mass for more than twelve of his parishioners on that same Sunset Beach—alongside the hundreds of protestors—he would likely be arrested as the City has already shown itself to be willing to impose the most draconian demands on the Church. In July, San Francisco’s City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent a “cease and desist” letter to Archbishop Cordileone when the Archbishop attempted to allow parishes to resume public indoor Masses in late June. Claiming that religious services elsewhere have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks such as one in Mendocino County, where a cluster of cases was linked to a May church service, Herrera delivered a stern warning to the Archbishop that if the Masses continued, the City would issue “a restraining order to protect your parishioners and the broader community.”
Despite the discriminatory treatment, the courts have provided little relief. While the Trump Administration has given strong support to religious freedom arguments brought by faith communities and their advocates, the courts have refused to help. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled twice in the past few months against churches that sought exemptions from statewide COVID restrictions on houses of worship during the pandemic. In each case, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal wing of the Court.
In Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, the Supreme Court ruled that Nevada had the right to limit church attendance to 50 people while at the same time allowing casinos, breweries, and gyms to operate at 50 percent capacity. Justice Gorsuch, in his dissenting remarks, quipped, “In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion” and then stated, “But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion.”
In the California case, South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote an opinion claiming that “although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment….” Roberts claimed that whatever restrictions the state of California placed on churches, “similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”
In his dissent, Justice Kavanaugh wrote that California’s occupancy cap on religious worship services “indisputably discriminates against religion, and such discrimination violates the First Amendment.” In the meantime, while the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi defies the draconian San Francisco laws on hair salons by getting her hair done in a “closed” San Francisco salon, San Francisco’s churches are held hostage to the secular animus of the City’s government.
Marginalizing the voices of San Francisco’s religious leaders has been quite convenient for the City’s lawmakers this week as the City was able to pass—without organized opposition from churches and faith groups—the controversial California Senate Bill 145. Promoted by California state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) with support from the LGBTQ “community”, the bill modifies the state penal code to allow certain individuals convicted of sex offenses involving minors to apply for discretionary relief from having to register as sex offenders. According to a press release from Wiener’s office, the goal of the bill was to “redress the disparity” in between the way heterosexual and LGBT offenders are treated under the existing law. Currently, for consensual yet illegal sexual relations between a teenager age 15 and over and a partner within 10 years of age, sexual intercourse does not require the offender to be placed on the sex offender registry. By contrast, for other forms of intercourse—the kind of intercourse engaged in by same-sex couples—sex offender registration is mandated under all conditions. Bill 145 now effectively removes that distinction, so that a 25-year-old man will be able to engage in same-sex behavior with a 15-year-old boy without incurring the mandate to register as a sex offender.
Normally, churches and faith leaders would have something to say about such a bill. In fact, there are many people of faith who believe that keeping the churches closed is a strategy designed to shape public policy without the input of faithful voices. The continuing disparity, quite blatant in many cases, between how houses of worship and houses of commerce are treated certainly raises legitimate questions and serious concerns. Although their 501c-3 status prevents all churches from engaging in political activities, many churches have historically advised parishioners to be informed about candidates’ positions on non-negotiable issues such as respect for life in choosing how to vote.
“The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges,” wrote Justice Gorsuch in his dissent from the majority opinion in Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak. “But there is no world,” he insisted, “in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.” Alas, as Catholics in San Francisco are learning, that world both exists and appears to not be changing anytime soon.
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