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DOJ warns local governments to ‘expect action’ for unfairly shutting down religious services

Attorney General William Barr testifies before a House subcommittee in his first appearance before lawmakers on Capitol Hill. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
April 13, 2020

The U.S. Department of Justice has signaled it is taking a closer look at governments whose coronavirus shutdown orders are impeding religious services, and plan to take action this week.

DOJ Director of Communications Kerri Kupec tweeted on Saturday that U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr has been monitoring the actions of local governments in the week leading up to Easter Sunday. She said, “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!”

Last week was one of particular religious significance. The “Holy Week” period encapsulates several moments of religious observance, with Passover, Palm Sunday Good Friday and Easter Sunday all taking place. The series of religious days are of particular importance to Jewish and Christian faiths.

On Thursday Eric Dreiband, the U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights, wrote a Washington Examiner op-ed discussing the DOJ’s handling of civil rights concerns throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is no pandemic exception for religious freedom protections,” Dreiband wrote. “Although it is legal for the government to protect health and safety by limiting assemblies, including religious assemblies, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that it does not apply to similar nonreligious activity.”

Dreiband went on to say, “The Department of Justice will continue to enforce federal law to protect religious freedom if states or localities single out or target houses of worship for special restrictions in their response to COVID-19.”

The DOJ has signaled its stance on the issue amid reports of church closures around the country.

Some churches have opted for different avenues of hosting services, including through video call technologies like Facebook Live, Zoom, Free Conference Call, while others have gone with drive-in worship services.

Last week attendees at drive-in Church services in Greenville, Miss. were given the ultimatum to disperse or face a $500 fine, in spite of the fact that all in attendance for the service were seated within their vehicles.

The Washington Examiner reported the Kansas Supreme Court on Saturday upheld Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order banning religious services of more than 10 people.

“In our view, Kansas statute and the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights each forbid the governor from criminalizing participation in worship gatherings by executive order,” Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt wrote in one recent argument, opposing Kelly’s order.