May 05, 2020

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to protect California residents from the spread of COVID-19 by allowing a public health order banning large gatherings to remain in place without exemptions for religious services.

Americans United filed an amicus brief today in Gish v. Newsom, explaining that it is not only permissible for California to include houses of worship and religious services in the temporary ban of large, in-person gatherings, but it would be unconstitutional to exempt religious gatherings from the order.

The U.S. Constitution makes clear that religious exemptions can be granted only if they won’t cause harm to others. A religious exemption from California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order would endanger the public health because COVID-19 can spread as easily at religious gatherings as it does at secular gatherings, and it can spread well beyond the people who participate in these events. An exemption also would unconstitutionally grant special privileges to religious activities.

“As we’ve already seen in California and across the country, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between religious and secular gatherings – it spreads easily at both, putting the health of entire communities at risk,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “Gov. Newsom’s public health order does not violate religious freedom; it ensures religious freedom is not misused to risk people’s lives. We sympathize with people of faith who find solace in religious services during such challenging times and applaud the faith communities that are finding creative new ways to worship together remotely. We will get through this crisis together, even if not in person.” 

Americans United also filed an amicus brief in a similar case in California, Cross Culture Christian Center v. Newsom. In an order that cites AU’s brief, U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez on May 5 declined to grant a religious exemption to Newsom’s order.

“The constitutional guarantee of religious freedom protects the right to practice the faith of one’s choice,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United. “It also protects others from being harmed in the name of this precious freedom. Gov. Newsom’s order respects both public health and religious freedom.”

AU’s Amicus Brief in Gish v. Newsom.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.