On Tuesday, Attorney General Bill Barr issued a strong warning to political officials across the nation for targeting the faithful in the midst of social distancing and lockdown measures combating the China-originated novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
Though he urged that social distancing measures should be followed, Barr emphasized that houses of worship cannot be targeted with different standards. While “the Constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances,” he said, even in these circumstances, religious discrimination is always prohibited.
“[E]ven in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” the AG continued, according to The Hill. “Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”
Governors and mayors across the nation have raised eyebrows with their strict regulation of the faithful.
For example, mayors in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi banned even “drive-up” church services, where congregants remain in their vehicles, claiming that they somehow violate social distancing standards while maintaining that drive-through restaurants do not.
In another instance, far-left New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would permanently close houses of worship if they do not adhere to his lockdown measures.
“I want to say to all those who are preparing the potential of religious services this weekend – if you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services,” de Blasio told reporters last month. “I don’t say that with any joy. It’s the last thing I would like to do because I understand how important people’s faiths are to them, and we need our faiths in this time of crisis, but we do not need gatherings that will endanger people.”
“The NYPD, Fire Department, Buildings Department, and everyone has been instructed that if they see worship services going on, they will go to the officials of that congregation, they’ll inform them they need to stop the services and disperse,” the mayor said, warning, “If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
Barr noted in his statement that the Justice Department issued a Statement of Interest in support of a Mississippi baptist church’s lawsuit against the city of Greenville. The city fined each congregant $500 for attending a dive-up service in a parking lot.
“As we explain in the Statement of Interest, where a state has not acted evenhandedly, it must have a compelling reason to impose restrictions on places of worship and must ensure that those restrictions are narrowly tailored to advance its compelling interest,” the attorney general wrote.
“The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions,” he added.