Attorney General William Barr, in a released statement on Tuesday, said that state and local governments could not single out churches for “special burdens” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement of interest in support of Temple Baptist Church, who sued the city of Greenville, Miss. after the city’s police department fined those who attended a Wednesday evening drive-in service last week $500 after they refused to leave the parking lot. Mayor Errick Simmons issued an order banning drive-in church services.
The ban does not apply to drive-in restaurants like Sonic that frequently has more cars in its parking lot than the 20 cars Temple Baptist Church had for their drive-in service.
“Government is clearly overstepping its authority when it singles out churches for punishment, especially in a ridiculous fashion like this,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of ADF’s Center for Christian Ministries. “In Greenville, you can be in your car at a drive-in restaurant, but you can’t be in your car at a drive-in church service. That’s not only nonsensical, it’s unconstitutional, too.”
Attorney General Barr agreed. While acknowledging that states and local governments have broad emergency powers that can curtail rights temporarily in a crisis, they can not discriminate against churches.
“(E)ven 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. Thus, 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 noted.
“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,” Barr said.
“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,” he added.
“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,” Barr concluded.