In imposing severe restrictions on indoor worship services because of COVID-19 protocols, the city of San Francisco "is turning a great many faithful away from their houses of prayer," said San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone.
"I never expected that the most basic religious freedom, the right to worship -- protected so robustly in our Constitution's First Amendment -- would be unjustly repressed by an American government," he said in an op-ed for The Washington Post. It was posted the evening of Sept. 16 on the daily newspaper's website.
"But that is exactly what is happening in San Francisco. For months now, the city has limited worship services to just 12 people outdoors. Worship inside our own churches is banned," he continued.
"The city recently announced it will now allow 50 for outdoor worship, with a goal of permitting indoor services up to a maximum of 25 people by Oct. 1 -- less than 1% of the capacity of San Francisco's St. Mary's Cathedral."
"This is not nearly enough to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of Catholics in San Francisco," he added.
The archbishop's op-ed came a few days after he issued a memo to all priests of the San Francisco Archdiocese calling on each parish to each gather parishioners to participate in eucharistic processions to U.N. Plaza next to City Hall Sept. 20 "to witness to the city that faith matters."
Three parishes are each organizing a procession that he said he hopes all parishes will join.
After reaching the plaza, the entire group will process together to the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption for the celebration of multiple outdoor Masses. Participants will be wearing masks and following "proper social distancing," he added.
In the Sept. 13 memo, he also asked priests to encourage all of their parishioners to go to the website FreeTheMass.com and sign a petition calling on Breed to lift her "unfair restrictions" (over 3,500 people signed it the first week it was posted); and to display prominently at their churches a banner with the motto "We Are Essential: Free the Mass!"
The banners are being made for the processions and afterward they will be available to pastors to display at their churches; 100 banners will be in English, 15 in Spanish and five in Chinese.
In the op-ed, he said: "We Catholics are not indifferent to the very real dangers posed by COVID-19. This is one of the reasons Catholic churches have developed rigorous protocols to protect public health in our facilities."
"We submitted our safety plans to the city in May along with other faith communities, and while indoor retailers had their plans approved and went into operation, we are still waiting to hear back," he added.
At the same time, "the scientific evidence from other jurisdictions is clear: These safeguards are working," he said, adding that out of 1 million Masses celebrated in the U.S. in the past several months, there have been no documented outbreaks of COVID-19 linked to church attendance in churches that follow the protocols.
He noted that as San Francisco churches remain closed, "people can freely go to parks here, as long as they stay six feet apart. If they follow proper social distancing and wear masks, people can eat on an outdoor patio with no hard numerical limit. Indoor shopping malls are already open at 25% capacity."
"Catholics in San Francisco are increasingly noticing the simple unfairness," he said. "As one of my parishioners asked recently, 'Why can I spend three hours indoors shopping for shoes at Nordstrom's but can't go to Mass?"
San Francisco's faithful are not alone in facing such severe restrictions, Archbishop Cordileone said.
He pointed to data from Becket, a Washington-based nonprofit religious liberty law firm, showing that "six states with a combined population of 67 million Americans single out religious worship for unfavorable treatment compared to similar secular activities: California, New Jersey, Maine, Virginia, Connecticut and Nevada.
Catholics bear no "hostility toward government" and "respect legitimate authority," the archbishop said.
"We recognize that the government has a right to impose reasonable public health rules, just as we recognize its right to issue safety codes for our church buildings," he said. "But when government asserts authority over the church's very right to worship, it crosses a line.
"Our fundamental rights do not come from the state. As the authors of our Declaration of Independence put it, they are 'self-evident,' that is, they come from God," he added.
"We want to be partners in protecting the public health, but we cannot accept profoundly harmful and unequal treatment without resisting," Archbishop Cordileone said.