Yesterday we reported on Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R) request to the U.S. Attorney General to investigate the unequal standards that state and local government officials are using across the country to ban church services because of the coronavirus, while allowing, and in some cases encouraging, massive street protests.
Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has provided an example of this. While continuing to ban gatherings of more than 10 people, including churches, she recently took to the streets to join tens of thousands of protesters marching in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke from the Senate floor on Tuesday about the religious discrimination occurring around the country from government closure orders, and specifically mentioned D.C.’s mayor:
“Here in the District of Columbia, the mayor celebrates massive street protests. She actually joins them herself. But on her command, churches and houses of worship remain shut. … Apparently, while protests are now permissible, prayer is still too dangerous.”
Mayor Bowser was later interviewed on MSNBC and asked to respond to McConnell’s charge. In her response, Bowser stated:
“I think the senator is very familiar with the White House’s reopening plan. It’s a phased reopening plan. It follows data and science. The president was there when it was presented by Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci. And we are following a phased reopening plan in Washington, D.C., and we are in phase one. We’re reopening our city safely and according to the science. Now, First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the same. And that’s why we don’t see our cities opened up to all of the massive events. Now, in the United States of America, people can protest.” (emphasis added)
But the mayor’s statement actually proves McConnell’s larger point:
“These governments are acting like the coronavirus discriminates based on the content of people’s speech. But alas, it’s only the leaders themselves who are doing that.
“It is now impossible to avoid the conclusion that local and state leaders are using their power to encourage constitutionally-protected conduct which they personally appreciate, while continuing to ban constitutionally-protected conduct which they personally feel is less important.”
That kind of “pick and choose” behavior by the government is what the First Amendment was specifically designed to prohibit.