SAN FRANCISCO—The United States Department of Justice wrote a letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed on Friday, September 25, expressing concern for the city’s treatment of places of worship. The letter mentioned the limitation of indoor worship to one congregant regardless of the size of the place, while the city allows multiple people in far greater numbers in other indoor settings including gyms, hair salons, day cares, and tattoo parlors. The letter from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice called on the City of San Francisco to immediately equalize its treatment to reverence places.  

The letter, signed by Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and US Attorney for the Northern Californian District David Anderson, said that San Francisco is treating secular businesses more favorably than houses of worship. 

The treatment towards these sites were called “draconian” and “out of step with the treatment afforded other similar indoor activities in San Francisco.” Dreiband said the restrictions on worship services were “wholly at odds with this Nation’s traditional understanding of religious liberty, and may violate the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

Eric S. Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

Indoor activity in “personal care” businesses was regulated by guidelines that require 6-foot distancing with exceptions such as distancing between the service provider and the customer. Gyms could operate at 10% capacity as of September 14. At the 24 Hour fitness center on 45 Montgomery Street, the facility allowed 44 participants.

A service provider and a customer at a hair salon on Irving Street.

Dreiband compared government treatment of houses of worship to personal care services.

“Personal service providers including barber shops, nail salons, massage locations, and tattoo parlors—where there is significant contact between the service provider and the customer over an extended period of time—are permitted to serve as many customers indoors as they can space at six feet apart,” Dreiband said in the letter.

“That we are dealing with a very serious public health crisis does not permit government to discriminate against religious worshipers by imposing a one-person-per-house-of-worship rule while permitting larger numbers of people to gather in tattoo parlors, hair salons, massage studios, and other places.” 

The letter called on the mayor to treat reverence places equally with other enclosed sites to comply with the First Amendment. Dreiband stated that no government in the United States can “attack religion” arbitrarily.

“People of faith go to churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship with their fellow believers, and they can do so lawfully because the First Amendment to the United States Constitution makes illegal any effort by government to prohibit the free exercise of religion.” 

Under the city’s current health order, only one congregant at a time is allowed to worship indoors. Dreiband said the order treats favorably secular activities that include similar or greater degrees of personal contact than religious gatherings.

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone issued a statement on the day the letter was issued, commending the Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

“I am very grateful to the Department of Justice for this letter calling on Mayor London Breed to stop violating the civil rights of Catholics and other believers in San Francisco,” the archbishop said.

Cordileone added that Catholics have been patiently observing health orders that “discriminate against people of faith.” He wrote, “At last, a competent legal authority is challenging the city’s absurd rules, which have no basis in science, but are grounded in hostility to religion and especially the Catholic Church.”

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone preaches at St. Mary’s Cathedral, September 2020. (Courtesy of

The Department of Justice said it is reviewing options to take further action. On September 22, Archbishop Cordileone led thousands of Catholics in a mass procession from City Hall to the Cathedral of St. Mary in protest against San Francisco government health orders. On October 3, the San Francisco Archdiocese is planning to hold another outdoor mass procession aimed at sending the message: “We are essential! Free the Mass!” 

The San Francisco Archdiocese also claims that 19,000 people signed Cordileone’s petition calling on the San Francisco local government to end “unfair restrictions” on Catholic houses of worship. 

The DOJ letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed can be accessed at: