Attorney General William Barr spoke out in defense of the larger religious gatherings that some places of worship have opted to conduct in-person despite restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Barr argued that federal, state and local governments did not have the right to “single out” religious institutions when placing restrictions on public gatherings.
“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,” Barr’s statement read.
“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 continued.
The comments came the same day that the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in support of a church in Mississippi where congregants were fined $500 for participating in worship services amid the pandemic. The city of Greenville fined each attendee for not obeying the government-issued restrictions.
The service took place in a parking lot, where congregants listened to their pastor over their car radios while inside their vehicles. Attendees remained in their cars with their windows rolled up for the duration of the service.
Barr argued in his statement that the church in this situation was singled out, as the city opted to permit restaurants to operate through their drive-throughs, even with customer’s car windows being open.
“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 argued.
“As we explain in the Statement of Interest, where a state has not acted evenhandedly, it must have a compelling reason to impose restrictions on places of worship and must ensure that those restrictions are narrowly tailored to advance its compelling interest.”