The Department of Justice, under the leadership of Attorney General Barr, has moved aggressively to make sure that state and local measures to contain the Wuhan coronavirus do not violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. We discussed some of the DOJ’s actions here, here, and here.
Now, the New York Times reports that Justice Department has “warned California’s governor that his COVID-19 restrictions discriminate against places of worship by preventing them from meeting while businesses and film studios are allowed to carry on working.” The warning comes in a letter signed by my friend Eric Dreiband, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
California is finally easing coronavirus restrictions in some jurisdictions. According to the Times, Gov. Newsom’s measures will enable restaurants and retail stores to reopen. In addition, Newsom will graciously allow “some workers [to] begin returning to offices where working from home [is] not practical.” He has included the entertainment industry in a list of businesses exempted from restrictions.
Churches, though, are not included in the exempt list, and that’s the basis for the Justice Department’s warning.
It’s letter to Newsom states:
California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential ecommerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden, regardless of whether remote worship is practical or not.
The Justice Department isn’t telling Gov. Newsom how quickly he should ease restrictions on activities in California. It is simply saying that “whichever level of restrictions you adopt. . .civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature.” It is also reminding Newsom that “there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has supported some challenges to restrictions on religious services. Its executive director, Anthony Romero, says he welcomes the Justice Department’s scrutiny of state and local restrictions. Romero complains, though, that the DOJ is “increasingly scrutinizing the actions or policies of governors in states that don’t politically align with the Trump administration.”
But, of course, it’s left-wing governors, county officials, and mayors who are most likely to treat churches less favorably than movie studios, law firms, and the like. I’m confident that if there are conservative local officials whose policies illegally discriminate against religion, they too will be hearing from the Trump/Barr DOJ.