A Texas-based law firm specializing in religious liberty and First Amendment issues is criticizing and calling for the repeal of a Los Angeles Health Department policy it says bans observation of the Jewish High Holy Days Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas, sent a letter to the Los Angeles County Health Officer Muntu Davis and County Counsel Mary Wickham on Wednesday calling for the end of the policy that – in an earlier wording – specifically mentioned the prohibition of "having dinner with extended family and friends to honor the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur)."
It noted an update published Tuesday replaced the reference to High Holy Days with "religious or cultural holiday." Rosh Hashana begins Friday at sundown and Yom Kippur is set for Sept. 27 at sundown.
"It is simply beyond the pale to threaten specifically to police the homes of observant Jews during the High Holy Days, under threat of criminal penalties," the letter written by First Liberty senior counsel Stephanie Taub says. "Although now hiding behind obscured language, the ban on celebrating the High Holidays with others remains."
The letter did not threaten legal action in the name of its client, Rabbi Yisrael Gelb, but referred to the policy not being able to withstand the legal concept of "strict scrutiny."
It referred to the county permitting a Black Lives Matter protest June 7 that attracted 100,000 people with no consequences.
"In light of the county's tolerance of mass political gatherings of up to 100,000 individuals, as well as its express approval of various commercial activity, the county has waived any argument that it must prohibit small gatherings for the most holy days of the Jewish calendar," it said.
"Suggestions that such meals occur out of doors are likewise unavailing. Record heat, pervasive smoke and ash from wildfires, and civil unrest targeting those dining outside present new threats to the physical health and safety of Jewish families throughout Los Angeles."
City News Service published a response from an unidentified county spokesperson that noted "religious services have been allowed to be held online and outdoors with physical distancing and the use of face coverings, and they may continue to be held with those public health safeguards in place."
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