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Justice Department warns California that coronavirus rules may violate religious freedoms

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LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Justice Department issued a letter Tuesday warning that California could be violating religious freedoms in its plan to reopen the state after the coronavirus stay-at-home order.

The letter from the Justice Department’s civil rights division to Gov. Gavin Newsom listed several objections both to the original order and the plan to slowly reopen the economy.

The Justice Department questioned why religious work was not considered “essential” while other sectors, including the entertainment and e-commerce industries, were allowed to continue operating.

Federal officials also criticized the reopening plan for allowing restaurants, shopping malls, offices and manufacturing facilities to open under the state’s Phase 2 while religious institutions could not reopen for in-person services until Phase 3, which would occur later.

“We believe that the Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the reopening plan,” Kerri Kupec, director of communications for Attorney General William Barr, said on Twitter.

Newsom’s office didn’t immediately comment.

Newsom on Tuesday eased some of California’s requirements for reopening businesses. The rules will make it easier for counties to restart the economy, but will still likely mean that regions hit hardest by the coronavirus will open more slowly.

The governor pointed to progress, including a stable hospitalization rate among COVID-19 patients and those treated in intensive care units, as well as increased testing and more protective gear for health care workers.

For the most part, religious institutions have rigorously followed California’s stay-at-home rules, canceling services and curtailing in-person contact.

But several incidents over the last few weeks have sparked concern from health officials, including instances where churches reopened in violation of the rules. Some groups have launched legal challenges to the rules, saying they violate freedom of religion.

This month, a federal judge ruled that Newsom had the right to ban church assemblies in the interest of public health during the pandemic.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

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