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DOJ invokes protests in urging Maryland county to amend order for religious gatherings

DOJ invokes protests in urging Maryland county to amend order for religious gatherings
© Greg Nash

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is calling on Maryland's Montgomery County to amend a COVID-19 order to allow for religious gatherings after officials permitted protests over George Floyd’s death.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division sent a letter to the county's executive and council on Wednesday expressing “civil rights concerns” about the enforcement of an executive order that prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people.

The letter begins by praising officials in the county, which sits just outside of Washington, D.C., for releasing a June 1 statement permitting “peaceful public protest” despite the order to limit gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.

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“Of no less importance, of course, is the First Amendment’s protection for religious exercise,” Dreiband wrote.

“Government may not discriminate against religious gatherings compared to other nonreligious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest, absent compelling reasons,” he said.

The assistant attorney general called on the county’s leaders to adjust the executive order to allow residents to “gather peacefully to exercise the full range of rights protected by the First Amendment.”

The letter addressed to Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and the County Council encourages the county to “ensure that it imposes no more onerous conditions on gatherings for religious exercise than it does for other purposes.”

Dreiband acknowledged in the letter that protests are usually held outdoors and religious services are usually held indoors, but he cited reports of hundreds of people “packed into a library” in Bethesda on June 2 for demonstrations.

“We urge you to ensure that your Executive Orders and enforcement of them respect both the right of your residents to assemble to express their views and the right to practice their faith,” the letter reads.

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Dreiband in a statement announcing the letter called it “important” for people to be able to practice religion “during a crisis.”

“Montgomery County has shown no good reason for not trusting congregants who promise to use care in worship the same way it trusts political protesters to do the same,” he said. “The Department of Justice will continue to take action if states and localities infringe on the free exercise of religion or other civil liberties.”

The executive order issued in Montgomery County on June 1 permits "drive-in religious services" with attendees staying in their cars and participating in services remotely.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) later issued an executive order allowing churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other religious facilities to open at 50 percent capacity.

However, counties and municipalities are given the option to delay entering the second phase of the state's recovery plan if they feel like their areas have not hit needed metrics.

Elrich, the Montgomery County executive, tweeted Wednesday that "we continue to rely on the data to protect public health." The official said the county could enter a second phase of reopening next week that would permit one congregant or family per 200 square feet of service space.

Despite some states having limitations on gatherings during the pandemic, widespread protests broke out within the past two weeks after video showed Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody.