Archbishop Cordileone Discusses Religious Liberty, COVID Restrictions and Equal Treatment

The San Francisco archbishop told the Register that the continuing unfair treatment of religious worship compared to some secular activities is ‘outrageous,’ as well as unconstitutional.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrates Mass on the Cathedral Plaza in San Francisco on Aug. 22.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrates Mass on the Cathedral Plaza in San Francisco on Aug. 22. (photo: Dennis Callahan / Archdiocese of San Francisco)

On Thursday, the Supreme Court vacated the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling against California churches that had sued over restrictions that banned indoor worship altogether while still permitting some businesses to remain open at 25% capacity in areas with severe spread of the coronavirus. This followed the high court’s decision last week in Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, in which it ruled 5-4 that places of worship should have injunctive relief against New York’s 10- and 25-person occupancy limits in areas with a lot of coronavirus spread.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has been a vocal opponent of oppressive coronavirus restrictions aimed at California churches over the year. In September, he led a demonstration and Eucharistic procession to “Free the Mass,” protesting city and state COVID restrictions on churches when businesses deemed “essential” were allowed to operate at a larger capacity. The Department of Justice took notice, warning San Francisco Mayor London Breed that the rules of just one individual at a time in a place of worship was “unconstitutional,” and the limit was changed to no more than 100 people at a time for indoor worship.

Last week, San Francisco was designated “purple tier” due to a surge in COVID cases, which meant a ban for indoor worship. Archbishop Cordileone spoke with the Register today about why he believes this restriction is “offensive” and “unconstitutional” and what he hopes might occur in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to vacate the ruling against California churches. 


How does Thursday’s Supreme Court decision affect parishes in your archdiocese and in the state? Is there legal action from the bishops planned?

There’s no immediate effect. We have to wait and see what the district court does because [the Supreme Court] did not grant injunctive relief, as it did in New York in the Diocese of Brooklyn case, but it vacated the district court decision in light of the Supreme Court’s decision for the injunction in the Diocese of Brooklyn case and asked the district court to review its decision in light of that case. I think it’s clear that the Supreme Court thinks the district court needs to grant this injunctive relief on the basis of that Supreme Court decision, but we have to wait for the district court to decide. If the district court does the right thing and acts in a timely way — which these matters usually are: done in a timely way — we’ll be able to return to indoor worship with the appropriate restrictions. 

California has a color tier system similar to New York’s. It depends on the county, and there are four tiers. Purple is the most restrictive; almost the whole state is in purple tier now. There are three or four counties in the red; one is actually in the archdiocese: Marin County is in the red. Red allows indoor worship at 25% capacity or a limit of 100 maximum, whichever is lower, but purple tier allows no indoor worship, while it does allow indoor retail at 25% capacity. 

These are the restrictions we’ve been fighting. The state’s getting stricter because of the surge and the infections. They’re now going to analyze things according to regions, but up until just now, this is the way it has worked. 


What would you say is the main problem with the way California and San Francisco local government has handled the COVID restrictions on worship? 

It’s deeply offensive, it’s outrageous, and it’s unconstitutional to say worship is nonessential. The government has no authority to tell the Church if it’s essential or not, or which of its services are essential or not. That’s the Free-Exercise Clause of the Constitution. The government cannot impede us from exercising our religious liberty. This is really serious. 

I have said all along the government has the right and the responsibility to tell us what we have to do to protect public health when we worship. I’ve said that all along, and we accept these restrictions. We have our safety protocols. Every diocese in the country just about is following these, the model that came out of the Thomistic Institute; we’ve adopted them here for San Francisco. They’ve been scientifically proven to be effective. 

There was that study done over the summer, a 14-week period when they studied 1 million Masses following the safety protocols, and there were no outbreaks. We’re committed to public health and being responsible. But they’re being unconstitutional and closing up public worship while they’re allowing other businesses to operate; even in the purple tier, they’ve even been allowing these services that involve extended one-on-one contact, like hair and nail salons and massage and tattoo parlors. I understand the health experts would say, even if there is an infection, it won’t be an outbreak — an outbreak is a whole cluster of infections; it’s not a group gathering, so there’s not going to be an outbreak. But we have had no outbreaks in our church services when we’ve done it. According to these protocols, there have been outbreaks, but none of those outbreaks have happened in Catholic churches. There have been a few bad actors who weren’t acting responsibly, but they’re judging everyone on the basis of those few examples. 


What do you think is the best course of action for the bishops in these areas faced with oppressive COVID restrictions? Is it civil disobedience or seeking legal recourse? 

Everyone has a different opinion on it, so it’s hard to get some unanimity of opinion. I think all of those options are viable when the time comes, but some people think that the time’s overdue for civil disobedience; and I empathize with them, but there are a lot of factors to weigh. One is there’s this false impression that religious worshippers are just irresponsible — we don’t care about people getting the virus and dying, and we just want to do the thing that we like to do, regardless of public health; which is absolutely false, of course, but it would feed into that narrative, so there’s a PR side to it. 

Also, we’re people of faith; we don’t like having to get into fights over things that should be something we mutually understand, so we’ve been cooperative. We want to be cooperative. We have been, and we like, collaborating with others for the common good. It’s sort of not in our instinct to get into an adversarial relationship. And then, as bishops, we have a lot of people: I have about half a million Catholics in the archdiocese and 90 parishes in three counties, and that’s probably about an average-size diocese. We have a lot of people from a lot of different cultural and linguistic groups, a lot of different political persuasions, a lot of different socioeconomic levels. Trying to keep unity among them all is sometimes a challenge, and there will probably be some people upset by civil disobedience. It has to be done in the right way, where there’s a lot of moral capital to back us up if we take that step. 


What’s your response to critics who say that Catholic churches and other places of religious worship are unjustly trying to use the courts to obtain special treatment for themselves, compared to more secular gatherings that public authorities are also regulating in order to control the pandemic?

We would be happy with equal treatment, even though that is inadequate actually, because secular activities are not a First Amendment right. Again, the government has no authority to tell the Church we can’t worship. So according to the Constitution, we’re in a privileged situation compared to secular businesses or secular activities. But because of the concern of stemming the spread of the virus, I’d be happy if we were treated equally with secular activities. 

A lot of us are running out, some already have run out, of patience, or our patience is running very thin. We’re being told again there’s a surge and that we have to get more severe with the restrictions to not overwhelm the hospitals, but we’ve been told this so many times in the past and the hospitals were not overwhelmed. It may be true this time, maybe this time there really is a risk of overwhelming the hospitals, but we’ve heard this over and over again, and they’ve kept us shut down because of it. We’ve been putting up with this injustice for months and months on end.

There’s this double standard. Back earlier in the summer, when all those protests were going on, we have, we still have, a limit in San Francisco of 200 for outdoor gatherings — some counties, there is no limit — but they were allowing those protests to go on. At that time in San Francisco, the limit was 12 for an outdoor gathering. They would have a hundred or more people at protests, not only allowing it, even officials participating in it — it’s this double standard and keeping their suppression of religion because they just see us as nonessential.


What would your advice be to the faithful who are trying to balance safety concerns with religious observance this Advent and Christmas season? 

Access the Mass as they can; access the other sacraments. I’ve asked my priests to continue to make confession available for people. Then to keep the faith alive in their home, as I’m sure a lot of them have been doing when they can’t get to Mass to watch it virtually, but also prayer, keeping prayer alive in the home. Now, in the season of Advent, it’s very rich in symbols and in rituals: lighting the advent wreath; saying some prayers; praying the family Rosary. Observe the basic safety precautions of wearing masks and keeping social distance outside of the home and all those usual things.