California’s attorney general defends virus shutdowns

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DON THOMPSON
Associated Press
SACRAMENTO (AP) — What would normally be broad constitutional protections for freedoms of assembly, religion — even buying guns — may be curtailed when they endanger others during the coronavirus pandemic, California’s top law enforcement officer said in an interview.
The state has been sued over all three during its shutdown as government officials pick winners and losers in deciding which businesses and activities can operate and which can’t.
But in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Attorney General Xavier Becerra said officials have broad authority to do what they think is necessary to slow the spread during the virus pandemic, even if that trumps normal fundamental freedoms.
“The Constitution remains in place,” Becerra said. “The Constitution — U.S. and our state constitution — has provisions in it that address emergencies like this. And so I don’t think there’s any doubt that for the protection of people’s not just their health but their lives, our government must take actions which protect our communities and the individuals in those communities.”
Three Southern California churches this week sued Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials including Becerra, saying the state’s social distancing orders violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and assembly.
A lawsuit last month by libertarian economist and actor Ben Stein argues that California’s unprecedented stay-at-home orders have effectively created a “soft police state” that put 40 million residents under the equivalent of indefinite house arrest, violating guarantees of freedom of assembly.
And several groups representing gun owners or buyers have filed multiple lawsuits alleging that some officials are restricting Second Amendment and other constitutional rights.
People still have the right to practice their religion, Becerra said, but “no one is entitled to endanger the life of someone else simply so that he can extend the exercise of his or her religion beyond means that would now start to imperil the health and life of another person.”
The current executive order permits drive-in worship services, so long as participants adhere to distancing guidelines and don’t touch others, his office said in a legal response to the lawsuit Friday.
Attorney Harmeet K. Dhillon, a Republican Party official and chief executive of the nonprofit Center for American Liberty that filed the religious freedom lawsuit, said officials could require congregants to wear masks and stay a safe distance apart, the same as for other essential activities such as shopping for groceries.
But they can’t halt such gatherings entirely, she said.
“It’s a disappointingly shallow response to a very complex question involving a fundamental right,” she said of Becerra’s reasoning. “It’s not his place to tell us how to worship.”
Prominent right-wing attorney Larry Klayman, the founder of Judicial Watch and Freedom Watch who sued on Stein’s behalf, said the governor’s order isn’t enough authority to allow officials to cite or arrest people for violations.
“People who take reasonable precautions to protect themselves and protect the public at large should not be ordered to, in effect, remain in prison in their house,” Klayman argued.
Federal judges have split on the issue. A federal judge in California last week refused to allow a small church in San Diego County to gather, holding that the right to freedom of religion doesn’t “include the right to expose the community … to communicable disease.” But a federal judge ruled that Kentucky’s largest city couldn’t stop a local church’s drive-in service, criticizing Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer for an act the judge said “criminalized the communal celebration of Easter.”
Only a few churches have refused to stop holding in-person services, with many switching instead to online services. On Easter Sunday, several churches held drive-in services for congregants who listened on their car radios from parking lots.
Deputies in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Contra Costa County cited a pastor in Richmond for violating the stay-at-home order by holding Easter services, the Bay Area News Group reported Friday. Pastor Wyndford Williams was issued the misdemeanor citation after a deputy found about 40 people at the All Nations Church of God in Christ who were neither wearing masks nor staying physically separated.
The coronavirus has also altered the work of the Department of Justice Becerra oversees. He said he has shifted department resources to handle thousands of complaints and tips on price gouging for things like toilet paper or hand sanitizer, for people peddling bogus coronavirus cures, and for sham charities and other scams that have popped up.
“It’s more intense,” Becerra said, even as many of his office’s employees work from home and others work in shifts.
Still, the outbreak hasn’t slowed his regular filing of legal actions against President Donald Trump’s administration, while Newsom has muted his criticism and praised the federal government’s cooperation.
Becerra said he will continue to point out what he sees as Trump’s “dangerous and reckless” policies.
“The governor’s doing what he thinks he’s got to do,” said Becerra, who like Newsom is a Democrat. “There are enough critiques of how the Trump administration has handled the COVID-19 response, and the facts will speak for themselves despite what the president would like anyone to convey.”