This week Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, asking him to initiate an investigation into the apparent violations of the civil rights of religious Americans around the country who have been forced to stay away from their churches while protesters have been allowed to gather in large numbers with little objection, and even encouragement, from state authorities.
The letter, dated Tuesday, points out the unequal treatment by various states of the First Amendment rights being exercised:
“In the past few weeks, state officials across the country have blatantly violated the free exercise and free speech rights of religious Americans,” the letter reads. “Under the First Amendment, state officials must not treat religious persons and groups worse than others, and they must not favor one kind of speech over another. State officials have violated the free speech and free exercise rights of religious Americans by treating religious gatherings and speech differently than the speech and mass gatherings of protests. I urge you to launch a full civil rights investigation.”
Hawley goes on to agree with the right of protesters to “peaceably assemble.” But he argues that same consideration must be given to churches:
“As our Constitution allows, Americans have the right to peaceably protest. Millions of people are rightly angry about the death of George Floyd, and they should be able to protest peacefully. At the same time, state officials must not use their support for this protest to infringe the free exercise and free speech rights of religious Americans. Yet that is happening across the nation. The First Amendment prohibits state officials from treating religious individuals and groups worse than others. Two weeks ago, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court denied relief to a California church. The decision tilted in favor of the state, the Chief Justice wrote, because of uncertainty about whether the church was being treated worse than comparable secular organizations.”
The senator points out that the time of uncertainty is now past:
“Now, after two weeks of nationwide protests, no uncertainty remains. Many jurisdictions across the nation are imposing extraordinarily strict caps on religious gatherings—such as restricting religious gatherings to 10 or fewer people—even as those jurisdictions allow thousands of people to gather closely in protests. States cannot allow one but prohibit the other.”
The U.S. Department of Justice has been pro-active already on the issue of states treating religious individuals and organizations differently than secular ones, for which Hawley expresses his appreciation. He urged Barr to “remain engaged, open a full civil rights investigation, and bring whatever lawsuits are necessary to secure the First Amendment rights of all Americans.”
There has been no response from the Justice Department yet to Hawley’s letter.