SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CNN) — A group of pastors who say they represent tens of thousands of congregants will open the doors of their churches at the end of the month despite a state order to keep them closed, according to a new petition.
More than 1,200 pastors in California have signed the petition, which says they will resume in-person services beginning on May 31. That would defy the state’s stay-at-home order, which was enacted to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“We believe you are attempting to act in the best interests of the state, but the restrictions have gone too far and for too long,” attorney Robert Tyler, who represents the pastors and the thousands of churches and ministries they lead, wrote in a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Under Newsom’s current plan, churches would be allowed to reopen in Stage 3. But the state is currently in the early portion of its Stage 2 road map to reopen. Newsom has been under increasing pressure by the state’s faith-based institutions to reopen.
“In order to restore the proper balance between public safety and individual liberties, the clergy we represent have declared their intent to begin holding in-person church services beginning on Sunday, May 31, 2020,” the letter stated. “All services will be held in compliance with CDC and state guidelines for social distancing as is required of ‘essential businesses.'”
Churches at the center of reopening debate in US
The petition comes days after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted pages of detailed guidelines on how to reopen the United States. The guidelines reportedly sparked internal debate between the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights Division, which felt that faith-based organizations were being unfairly targeted in an early draft.
Houses of worship were ultimately not included as part of the guidelines.
On Wednesday, Senior Advisor to the President Kellyanne Conway said that the administration was still working with the CDC on guidelines for those institutions.
President Donald Trump, speaking more broadly on Thursday, said one of the things he wants to do to “normalize” life in the US is “get the churches open.”
“The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors,” Trump said. “I want to get our churches open, and we’re going to take a very strong position on that soon.”
It also comes one day after the Department of Justice sent Newsom a letter warning him that the state’s plan to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic discriminated against churches.
In a letter to Newsom, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division wrote that the reopening plan, which allows for a return to restaurants and shopping malls ahead of religious services, contained “pronounced unequal treatment of faith communities” that could run afoul of the First Amendment.
“The Department of Justice does not seek to dictate how States such as California determine what degree of activity and personal interaction should be allowed to protect the safety of their citizens,” assistant district attorney general Eric Dreiband wrote. “However, we are charged with upholding the Constitution and federal statutory protections for civil rights.”
“Whichever level of restrictions you adopt, these civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature,” he added.
The letter was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, and Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNN.
More than half of the counties across California are moving forward with plans to reopen their economy despite data showing that the state had recorded its second-highest number of daily coronavirus deaths on Tuesday.
According to Johns Hopkins University’s tally of cases in the United States, there are at least 1,551,853 cases of coronavirus in the U.S. and at least 93,439 people have died in the U.S. from coronavirus.
California currently has at least 85,997 coronavirus cases and 3,497 deaths.