Barr says government 'may not impose special restrictions' on religious gatherings

 

Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrTrump sides with religious leaders in fight against governors Senate Democrats call on Trump administration to let Planned Parenthood centers keep PPP loans Senate Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Planned Parenthood loans MORE said Tuesday that the government "may not impose special restrictions" on religious gatherings as churches across the country raise eyebrows with large in-person ceremonies conducted against the advice of health officials. 

Barr emphasized recommendations from federal health officials that people practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings, noting that “the Constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances.” 

“But even 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," Barr said in a statement. "Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity."

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Barr added that the Justice Department filed a memo in support of a Mississippi church after congregants were fined $500 per person for attending its parking lot services. The Justice Department suggested in its filing that the city of Greenville, where the church is located, singled out the religious services after it declined to issue similar penalties on those attending nearby drive-in restaurants. 

“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,” said Barr.

“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.” 

The Justice Department’s defense of the Mississippi church comes as places of worship across the country fight state and local stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, with some religious leaders saying their institutions should be considered essential.

On Monday, a group of pastors filed a lawsuit against officials in California over the state's stay-at-home order, which they accused of "specifically targeting people of faith."