In a Catholic Church that seems to be led by cowardly sheep instead of shepherds, San Francisco’s courageous Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone is an exception. Unlike the majority of bishops throughout the country who have been silent in the face of discriminatory policies limiting or even preventing public Masses, Archbishop Cordileone has been willing to stand up to the inequitable treatment the city’s Catholics have received from a city administration intent on preventing parishioners from entering their own Churches for Mass.
Limiting outdoor Mass to only 12 people — including the priest — and keeping the Churches locked, the city’s Catholics have been effectively prevented from practicing their faith for nearly six months.
True to his name, which means “heart of a lion,” Archbishop Cordileone has decided it is time to push back against the unfair policies imposed by a recalcitrant city government and has mobilized parishioners to prayerfully participate on Sunday, September 20, in a Eucharistic procession to City Hall to protest the religious discrimination in the city. The San Francisco Archdiocese has ordered 100 banners, which read, “We are Essential: Free the Mass!”
San Francisco’s Churches have been closed for public Mass since March, and although the city’s mayor has recently allowed one person at a time to enter the Church for private prayer, public Masses continue to be banned in the city’s Catholic Churches. While California is one of several states flagged by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty as imposing greater restrictions on worship than other similar activities like dining and shopping, San Francisco is an outlier in its draconian policies — far more restrictive than even the state-wide regulations issued by California’s governor. Limiting outdoor Mass to only 12 people — including the priest — and keeping the Churches locked, the city’s Catholics have been effectively prevented from practicing their faith for nearly six months.
But, at the same time that Catholic Churches in San Francisco have been closed, the city has allowed indoor retail stores to operate at 50 percent capacity and outdoor patio dining. In late August, San Francisco County allowed restaurants to serve indoors at 25 percent capacity. Yet no one has been allowed to enter a Catholic Church. Earlier this month, the city of San Francisco finally agreed to allow one person at a time to visit inside the Church, but Masses within the Church are still not allowed.
Calling the draconian policies “profoundly harmful and unequal,” Archbishop Cordileone has brought attention to the discriminatory treatment Catholics have received from the city. At the same time San Francisco’s Catholic Churches are shuttered, there have been dozens of street protests populated by thousands of unmasked protesters. According to community websites, September was a huge month for protests as September 3, protesters were encouraged to mobilize at Mission High School to March to Defund the SFPD. On Saturday, September 5, there was the United Nationwide Protests to “Demand Trump Pence Out Now!” at the Embarcadero Plaza. And on Sunday, September 6 — the same day that Archbishop Cordileone was only allowed to invite 11 parishioners to attend an outdoor Mass — there was a George Floyd Memorial Sunset Beach Stroll on one of San Francisco’s prettiest beaches.
If Archbishop Cordileone attempted to offer Mass for more than 12 of his parishioners on that same Sunset Beach — alongside the hundreds of angry protesters — he would likely have been arrested as the city has already shown itself to be willing to impose the most draconian demands on the Church. In July, San Francisco’s City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent a “cease and desist” letter to the Archbishop, threatening to issue a “restraining order” if the Archbishop did not comply.
Despite the obvious religious discrimination, the courts have provided little assistance. While the Trump administration has given strong support to religious freedom arguments brought by faith communities and their advocates, the courts have refused to help. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled twice in the past few months against churches that sought exemptions from statewide COVID restrictions on houses of worship during the pandemic. In each case, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal wing of the Court — against the Churches. In his dissent in a California case, Justice Kavanaugh wrote that California’s occupancy cap on religious worship services “indisputably discriminates” against religion.
Religious freedom is at stake here — and the Supreme Court can make all the difference as cities like San Francisco impose arbitrary anti-Catholic rules that apply unfairly against people of faith. At the same time San Francisco churches are held hostage to the secular animus of the city’s government, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi decided to defy San Francisco’s laws on hair salons by getting her hair done in a closed city salon. Now she is telling Archbishop Cordileone to “follow science” on COVID restrictions.
In calling for the peaceful protest, the Archbishop posted a statement on the Archdiocesan website proclaiming that “we can’t be silent any longer. We cannot simply stand by while our people are treated with this lack of compassion for their needs, and this lack of respect for their rights.” The Archbishop believes that our spiritual lives are at stake.
Justices Kavanaugh, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch all concurred that California is currently violating the First Amendment by imposing an undue burden on the ability to freely worship. Religious freedom is tenuous — we have already seen how easily it has been lost. With the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump has an opportunity now to make sure that any restrictions on worship are consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Religious freedom can be recovered as long as President Trump makes the wise decision in quickly appointing a new Justice to the Supreme Court.