After months of feuding with evangelical Christians over indoor worship services, Los Angeles County has now run afoul of observant Jews seeking to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with friends and extended family.
The First Liberty Institute on Wednesday called on county Department of Public Health to retract its Sept. 1 order prohibiting small gatherings such as baby showers, barbecues, study groups, and “having dinner with extended family and friends to honor the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur).”
The county cited the risk of novel coronavirus transmission, but Rabbi Yisrael Gelb called the policy “profoundly disrespectful and disappointing.”
“I plan on honoring the High Holidays as I do every year, by sharing a table with a local family in my congregation,” Rabbi Gelb said in a statement. “We urge the county to reverse its policy and allow us to celebrate our most holy days in peace and safety.”
In its letter, First Liberty accused the county of a double-standard, citing recent mass protests that took place despite the coronavirus shutdown, including a June 7 demonstration in Hollywood that drew a crowd estimated by Black Lives Matter organizers at nearly 100,000.
“After Los Angeles county has allowed political gatherings of up to 100,000 attendees, it is outrageous that the county would publish a policy threatening to crack down on extended family sharing a meal for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur,” said Stephanie Taub, First Liberty senior counsel. “It is simply beyond the pale to threaten to police the homes of observant Jews during the High Holidays under threat of criminal penalties.”
Ms. Taub said the “county should immediately remove all language from county policy threatening to police small, religious gatherings at family homes.”
First Liberty Institute (@1stLiberty) September 16, 2020
“Although now hiding behind obscured language, the threatened enforcement remains,” said First Liberty in a press release. “Violations of local health orders are a crime, punishable by fines or imprisonment.”
The county health department is no stranger to religious-freedom disputes. After four failed attempts, county officials won last week a temporary restraining order banning indoor services at Grace Community Church, although the evangelical megachurch defied the order Sunday with another packed house at its Sun Valley sanctuary.
At the service, Pastor John MacArthur read a list of the county’s requirements on parking, restroom protocols and social distancing, saying he wanted parishioners to understand “how utterly impossible that would be,” as reported by Patch North Hollywood-Toluca Lake.
Rosh Hashanah begins on Friday evening. The high holidays fall between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and represent “the holiest days of the Jewish calendar and usually include a series of meals in the family home with a small gathering of family or friends,” said First Liberty.
“Los Angeles County has not vigorously policed its stated ban on small gatherings with friends or extended family,” said the letter. “Yet, despite the county’s lack of enforcement, the county’s policy threatens enforcement against the upcoming holiday of a religious minority faith.”
In its order, the county said that such gatherings are “risky as they bring together people who do not live together and increase the chances of community transmission.”
California analysis the second-most stringent COVID-19 restrictions in the nation, second only to Hawaii, according to a WalletHub analysis updated Tuesday.
New cases in California have declined by 31% over the last 14 days, while deaths have ticked up by 3%, according to the New York Times coronavirus tracker.
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