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GOP senator calls for AG Barr to investigate bans on religious gatherings while mass protests are allowed


'States cannot allow one but prohibit the other'

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri called on Attorney General William Barr to investigate states that are allowing mass gatherings for social justice protests while still restricting the ability of religious institutions to gather for services.

Since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, protests including thousands of people have taken place nightly in some major American cities — many of the same places that won't allow fans to gather for sporting events or worshipers to gather for church in numbers greater than 50 or, in some cases, 10 people.

"In the past few weeks, state officials across the country have blatantly violated the free exercise and free speech rights of religious Americans," Hawley wrote in his letter to Barr. "Under the First Amendment, state officials must not treat religious persons and groups worse than others, and they must not favor one kind of speech over another. State officials have violated the free speech and free exercise rights of religious Americans by treating religious gatherings and speech differently than the speech and mass gatherings of protests. I urge you to launch a full civil rights investigation."

Hawley is not arguing against the right of people to protest Floyd's death; in fact, he says people are "rightly angry" about the death and should be allowed to gather peacefully in protest.

Hawley referred to a recent Supreme Court decision in which the court sided with the state in a case where a California church was seeking relief from the ban on large gatherings.

"The decision tilted in favor of the state, the Chief Justice wrote, because of uncertainty about whether the church was being treated worse than comparable secular organizations," Hawley wrote. "Now, after two weeks of nationwide protests, no uncertainty remains."

Government officials, including New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have made comments asserting that the Floyd protests are more justified than previous protests calling for businesses or churches to reopen.

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