As California Gov. Gavin Newsom continues to fight coronavirus spread through orders limiting public movements and closing some state beaches, push back is growing from various quarters seeking a reopening of churches, business and public gatherings.
A week after the California Highway Patrol banned public protests at the state Capitol and other state properties, a demonstration is expected at noon Friday around the downtown Sacramento building by people demanding the state reopen despite the threat from COVID-19.
The group, calling itself Re-Open California, End the Lockdown,” says on its Facebook page that protesters will make “their voices heard while remaining safely inside their vehicles.”
“Californians will gather for a peaceful in-vehicle protest, circling the State Capitol in Sacramento, California — calling for the re-opening of the Golden State,” the group said in an online post. “Millions of California families are currently struggling to figure out how they will put food on the dinner table, pay for urgently needed medicine for their families, and restore a sense of purpose and relevance to their lives.”
A similar protest on April 20 that drew roughly 500 demonstrators on foot and in vehicles received a permit from the CHP, but the agency announced a new policy banning such protests after hundreds of people gathered on the west steps of the Capitol without masks, gloves or social-distancing efforts called for in Newsom’s stay-at-home order.
The CHP ban also has drawn criticism from legal scholars, who say it goes too far.
“We do not doubt that CHP’s ban on protests is well-intentioned and meant to protect Californians’ health,” said a letter sent Tuesday by a group of First Amendment scholars and groups to Newsom and CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley. “And states are certainly empowered to protect the health and safety of their residents.
“But constitutional rights are not suspended in times of crisis or when it is expedient. Even the grave public health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic do not justify CHP’s wholesale and indefinite ban on individuals’ exercise of their First Amendment right to peaceably protest at the state capitol and other state facilities. We urge CHP to either eliminate or revise its current ban so that it comports with the Constitution.”
The letter, sent by the non-partisan Protect Democracy group and signed by legal scholars including Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School and Floyd Abrams of Yale Law School, says the ban “restricts substantially more speech than necessary to serve the state’s legitimate interest in protecting public health.”
To comply with constitutional guarantees of civil rights, the ban should be limited in its duration, allow protests that include social distancing and allow in-car protests, the group said.
Newsom and the CHP already are the focus of a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the ban, and other lawsuits have been filed challenging the right of the state and cities to limits church services because of coronavirus fears.
The CHP had said late Thursday that it had not issued a permit for the protest and would not address plans for how it would deal with protesters.
“Consistent with public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the California Department of Public Health, in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19, the California Highway Patrol currently is unable to approve permits for in-person mass gatherings on state property,” CHP said in an email. “The CHP is aware of the planned demonstration around the Capitol and will have resources available to take the appropriate action as necessary.”
The Sacramento Police Department, which control patrols on the sidewalks and streets surrounding the Capitol grounds, said there were no plans for street closures.
“We will have officers monitoring the protest, which will include officers that will be assigned for traffic control should it be needed,” Sacramento police said.
Protesters may be on foot
But one website promoting a series of protests statewide on Friday — wehaverights.com — included a map of the Capitol grounds with a designated area for a “walking protest” to take place “on L Street or anywhere we can fit in around this area.”
The site also suggested demonstrators bring signs and offered ideas for what they might say, including “I have the right to work,” “OPEN OUR SCHOOLS” and “Practice Media Distancing.”
“Our goal is to get our message out in a positive and safe manner,” the site said under a heading of “Etiquette,” that also included a warning against any violence.
“We want to be taken seriously. We will be judged by our attitudes, sign presentation and dress. We will be wearing RED, WHITE & BLUE colored shirts at the march. That way we know each other and stand united.”
The federal government has signaled that it is monitoring such policies nationwide, with Attorney General William Barr instructing U.S. attorneys nationwide to watch for policies that violate Americans’ civil rights.
With no date set yet for California’s stay-at-home order to expire, some rural counties are asking that the stay-at-home order be lifted for them. Others are loosening various restrictions. Yolo County said Thursday it would allow drive-in religious services.
But federal courts likely will decide the fate of some policies.
A lawsuit filed last week in federal court in Sacramento by a Lodi church — the Cross Culture Christian Center — challenges state and local orders that kept it from holding services, and already has drawn competing arguments about whether such bans are legal.
Are the rules unconstitutional?
The National Center for Law & Policy and Advocates for Faith and Freedom, two groups that filed the suit on behalf of the church, argue that “state regulations, even during a public health crisis, do not supersede constitutional rights.”
The church, run by pastor Jonathan Duncan, a former Stockton police officer, arranged for social distancing, provided hand sanitizers and blocked off its water fountain, but still was barred by authorities from holding services, the suit argues.
“The church has a sincerely and deeply held religious belief that it is essential for them as Christians to assemble and regularly gather together in person for the teaching of God’s Word, prayer, worship, baptism, communion and fellowship,” the lawsuit says.
But a friend of the court brief filed Tuesday by Americans United for Separation of Church and State argues that the bans are legal, as other courts already have ruled.
“No vaccine for COVID-19 yet exists, so the only way to slow its spread is to limit the number of opportunities for person-to-person transmission,” the brief says. “Temporarily restricting in-person gatherings is how California and (San Joaquin) County achieve that critical objective.
“And because it is unclear who is infected at any given time, the orders are no broader than necessary to ensure that the targeted activities — physical gatherings that create opportunities for transmission of the virus — are curtailed.”