The US Department of Justice (DOJ) on Tuesday commented on “issues of national importance regarding the interplay between the government’s compelling interest in protecting public health and safety from COVID-19 and citizens’ fundamental right to free exercise of religion,” ultimately siding with a Mississippi church.
On April 7, the city of Greenville issued an “Executive Order Regarding Church Services,” barring churches from holding drive-in and in-person religious services until the state lifts the governor’s shelter in place order. Temple Baptist Church, a church in Greenville, conducted “parking lot worship services” where attendees listened to the pastor over their radios while staying inside their cars. According to the church’s complaint, Greenville police issued $500 citations to those attending the drive-in service. The city has since stated that it will drop the fines, but will continue to enforce the governor’s order.
The church filed suit against the city alleging that it took improper action to enforce the ban, raising claims under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and under the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
DOJ attorneys filed a 14-page statement of interest in support of the church: “the facts alleged in the complaint strongly suggest that the City’s actions target religious conduct.” While they note the seriousness of the COVID-19 emergency, they concluded that “there is no pandemic exception … to the fundamental liberties the Constitution safeguards.” They continued to write that “courts reviewing a challenge to a measure responding to the ‘society-threatening epidemic’ of COVID-19 should be vigilant to protect against clear invasions of constitutional rights.”
Attorney General William Barr issued an additional statement on the DOJ’s website regarding religious practice amid the pandemic. He emphasized the importance of social distancing measures, but said that “even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.”
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.
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