In response to the Wuhan coronavirus, Breea Clark, the Democrat mayor of Norman Oklahoma, locked the city down. When she decided gradually to reopen Norman, the ban on churches and other houses of worship from holding religious services — as well as a general ban on “large gatherings” — remained in place. Restaurants, retail stores, and salons were allowed to reopen if they adhered to social distancing policies, but regular religious services, even with social distancing, were barred.
The Department of Justice advised Clark that, by subjecting religious institutions to restrictions not applicable to secular operations, she risked running afoul of the First Amendment. Churches and other religious facilities must be granted the same right to operate as restaurants, retail stores, and salons, said Timothy Downing, the U.S. Attorney for the western district of Oklahoma.
As a result of the DOJ’s intervention, Clark reopened the city’s churches in time for Mother’s Day.
However, Clark continued to maintain that her original ban on church services was lawful. She said she was backing down only because she didn’t want to fight the feds.
Defending her original stance, Clark explained:
Many people have been referring to the Constitution as of late. I have as well — specifically the preamble and the part about promoting the general welfare.
Clark, a law school graduate, should understand that the Constitution’s preamble cannot be read to override the specific protections of the First Amendment. However, according to her bio, she began her career as a college administrator. That fact may help explain her cavalier attitude toward religious rights.
UPDATE: In another victory for religious freedom, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has enjoined Kentucky’s governor from “prohibiting in-person services at the Maryville Baptist Church if the Church, its ministers, and its congregants adhere to the public health requirements mandated for ‘life-sustaining’ entities.”
The court said:
The [Kentucky] orders allow “life-sustaining” operations and don’t include worship services in the definition. And many of the serial exemptions for secular activities pose comparable public health risks to worship services.
For example: The exception for “life- sustaining” businesses allows law firms, laundromats, liquor stores, gun shops, airlines, mining operations, funeral homes, and landscaping businesses to continue to operate so long as they follow social-distancing and other health-related precautions. But the orders do not permit soul-sustaining group services of faith organizations, even if the groups adhere to all the public health guidelines required of the other services. . . .
The Governor has offered no good reason for refusing to trust the congregants who promise to use care in worship in just the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and laundromat workers to do the same.
Via Ed Whelan at Bench Memos.