Attorney General William Barr warned state authorities that social distancing mandates do not give the right to restrict religious organizations more than nonreligious ones Tuesday, after multiple incidents of churchgoers being cited by police made national headlines.
Barr specifically referred to an incident in Mississippi during which police fined church attendees $500, even though they were only listening to the service on the radio in their cars in the church parking lot.
The attorney general acknowledged the value of social distancing and the need to take precautions to slow and prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus from Wuhan, China, but said authorities must be careful not to violate constitutional rights, even during an emergency. Barr said, via statement:
In exigent circumstances, when the community as a whole faces an impending harm of this magnitude, and where the measures are tailored to meeting the imminent danger, the constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances.
But 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. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.
The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in support of Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, where police fined attendees who were at church, but not violating social distancing guidelines since they remained in their cars. The church, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, has sued the city's mayor.
"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," Barr's statement read. "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."