Justice Department Calls on San Francisco Mayor to End “One Congregant” Rule for Places of Worship to Comply with the Constitution


[ 25 Sept 2020] The Justice Department today sent a letter to San Francisco mayor explaining that the city’s policy of only allowing a single worshiper in places of worship regardless of their size, while allowing multiple patrons in other indoor settings including gyms, tattoo parlors, hair salons, massage studios, and daycares, is contrary to the Constitution and the nation’s best tradition of religious freedom.

The letter, sent by Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, David Anderson, explains that San Francisco’s policy of treating secular businesses more favorably than houses of worship is “wholly at odds with this nation’s traditional understanding of religious liberty, and may violate the First Amendment,” and calls on the mayor to take action to treat places of worship equally with other venues where people share enclosed spaces.

“No government in this free country can attack religion by transforming a house of worship arbitrarily into a place for solitary confinement. People of faith go to churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places to worship with their fellow believers, and they can do so lawfully because the First Amendment to the United States Constitution makes illegal any effort by government to prohibit the free exercise of religion,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband. “That we are dealing with a very serious public health crisis does not permit government to discriminate against religious worshipers by imposing a one-person-per-house-of-worship rule while permitting larger numbers of people to gather in tattoo parlors, hair salons, massage studios, and other places. There is no pandemic exception to the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights.” 

While continuing to enforce the one-congregant rule, San Francisco allows patrons at gyms, hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors, and massage studios so long as 6-foot distancing is followed. Gyms are allowed to open at 10 percent of capacity, daycares to operate with 10 to 12 children per class, and retail establishments generally can operate at 50 percent of capacity. 

The letter calls on the city to immediately equalize its treatment of places of worship to comply with the First Amendment.

On April 27, 2020, Attorney General William P. Barr directed Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, to review state and local policies to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.