Senator Brian Jones’s “Religion is Essential Act” Defeated by California Democrat State Senators

“What could have been a strong bipartisan action for religious freedom instead became a party-line protection drill for Governor Newsom”

Senator Brian W. Jones (R-Santee) expressed disappointment this afternoon when the Democrat leadership of the California State Senate defeated his Senate Bill 397, the “Religion is Essential Act.”

“We knew we faced long odds but still set out to hopefully gain a bipartisan victory for religious freedom,” stated Senator Brian W. Jones. "Instead, the Democrat leadership of the California State Senate gave in to pressure from Governor Newsom.  Two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions slapping down Governor Newsom’s dictates against religious freedom were helpful, but they only go so far.  Until our state law clearly declares religion is essential, our current Governor and future governors will continue to be able to side-step and undermine our religious freedom.”

Specifically, Jones’s SB 397 would have:

1) Required that the Governor and local governments treat religious services as an essential service (such as big-box stores) during any declared state of emergency; and

2) Prohibited the state and local governments from discriminating against a religious organization during an emergency; and

3) Required the state and local governments to permit religious services to continue operating during an emergency; and

4) Prohibited the state and local governments from enforcing a health, safety, or occupancy requirement that imposes a substantial burden on a religious service during an emergency; and

5) Allowed a religious organization that has been subject to state or local government overreach to file a claim for relief in an administrative or judicial proceeding.

The rationale for SB 397 was bolstered by two recent United States Supreme Court decisions:

• South Bay Pentecostal United Church v. Newsom on February 5, 2021, was a 6-3 ruling overturning California Governor Newson’s ban of indoor religious services during the Covid-19 pandemic.  The Court ruled that while the state can impose reasonable safety restrictions and limitations, the state cannot enforce an outright ban of church services if similar secular activities are allowed.

In this decision, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch stated: “Government actors have been moving the goalposts on pandemic-related sacrifices for months ... As this crisis enters its second year—and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan—it is too late for the State to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could … if Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.”

• Ritesh Tandon v. Newsom on April 9, 2021, was a 5-4 ruling overturning Newson’s ban of in-home private religious gatherings of more than three families.  Again, the court ruled that religious gatherings should not be treated any differently than secular gatherings.

Even the dissenters of this decision agreed that religious freedom should not be treated less fairly than secular activities.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated, “They may restrict attendance at houses of worship so long as comparable secular institutions face restrictions that are at least equally as strict.”

SB 397 was defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 2-7-2 vote.  Republican Senators Andreas Borgeas (of Fresno) and Brian Jones (of Santee) voted in favor of SB 397.  Democrat Senators Maria Durazo (of Los Angeles), Lena Gonzalez (of Long Beach), Robert Hertzberg (of Los Angeles), John Laird (of Santa Cruz), Thomas Umberg (of Santa Ana), Bob Wieckowski (of Fremont), and Scott Weiner (of San Francisco) voted against SB 397 while Democrat Senators Anna Caballero (of Salinas) and Henry Stern (of Los Angeles) did not vote.

SB 397 was cosponsored by California Family Council, Capitol Resource Institute, Judeo-Christian Caucus, and Real Impact, and was supported by Alliance Defending Freedom, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, The Salt & Light Council, and over 7,000 individuals.