US Attorney-General Bill Barr has warned state and local governments about unjustly burdening churches during the coronavirus crisis.
“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,” said Barr.
“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.
“Government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.
“For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings. Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens,” he added.
Barr said that the Department of Justice has filed a Statement of Interest in support of a church in Mississippi that held parking lot worship services.
“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. The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing,” said Barr.
“As we explain in the Statement of Interest, where a state has not acted even-handedly, 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. While we believe that during this period there is a sufficient basis for the social distancing rules that have been put in place, the scope and justification of restrictions beyond that will have to be assessed based on the circumstances as they evolve.”
Barr said that religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans.
“Religious communities have rallied to the critical need to protect the community from the spread of this disease by making services available online and in ways that otherwise comply with social distancing guidelines.”