In a press release on Tuesday, April 14, Attorney General Bill Barr, head of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), issued a strong statement in defense of religious liberty over COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. In the same release, Barr announced that the DOJ has filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit by Mississippi churchgoers who were fined $500 for attending an Easter church service.
The statement by Barr makes clear that churches and religious institutions cannot be singled out for enforcement action even when stay-at-home orders are in place.
“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 wrote. “Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.”
Barr’s statement goes on to explain that this kind of discrimination against churchgoers is exactly what appears to have taken place in Mississippi.
According to the lawsuit, during Holy Week, Temple Baptist Church in Mississippi held a drive-in service in a parking lot. All congregants abided by social distancing guidelines by listening to the pastor preach over their car radios, while remaining in their cars with their windows rolled up.
“The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending these parking lot services – while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open,” Barr’s statement read. “The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service that may not operate despite following all Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state recommendations regarding social distancing.”
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is representing Temple Baptist Church pro bono in its lawsuit against the city of Greenville, Mississippi. “We appreciate the DOJ’s support for our position that this type of government action isn’t necessary to protect health and safety,” said ADF senior counsel Ryan Tucker. “It only serves to unnecessarily violate Americans’ freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”
The statement of interest filed by the DOJ argued that the inalienable rights and liberties that are endowed to the American people cannot be suspended during a quarantine. “There is no pandemic exception to the fundamental liberties the Constitution safeguards,” the statement made clear to the court.
Unfortunately, this case in Mississippi is not the only instance of government officials imposing excessive and unnecessary restrictions on churches and congregants.
In one viral instance of police officers breaking up a church service in Kentucky, one officer told the church pastor, “By the order of the governor, your rights are suspended.”
Yet, religious freedom is a fundamental right for all American citizens enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These essential rights and liberties cannot be suspended. Indeed, the Bill of Rights exists to defend the rights of Americans precisely when the government wishes to take them away or call them “suspended.”
In the DOJ press release, Barr concluded that, “Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true more so than ever during this difficult time. The DOJ 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 Mississippi case is Temple Baptist Church v. City of Greenville
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