October 6, 2020
DOJ: The Bodyguard of Religious Freedom

DOJ: The Bodyguard of Religious Freedom

By FRC's David Closson

From the president's bout with coronavirus, the impending Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and the politics of the 2020 election, there has been no shortage of news stories to follow. However, an important story that has received relatively little coverage is the religious liberty violations against churches across the country. Despite encouraging signs that the virus is being managed, certain state and local authorities continue to discriminate against churches and houses of worship.

Thankfully, the Trump administration has noticed this disturbing trend and has put local authorities on notice. Last night on "Washington Watch," Tony Perkins was joined by Eric Dreiband, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, to discuss ongoing threats against churches and the federal government's response to these blatant violations of religious liberty.

For context, governors and mayors have used their authority to manage the public health crisis since the onset of the pandemic. But according to Dreiband, these government leaders "must do so in a manner that's lawful and they must do so in a manner that respects our liberties, including, among other things, our right to worship, our right to exercise, our religion as we deem appropriate."

Unfortunately, as the pandemic has progressed and as more has been learned about the novel coronavirus, it is increasingly clear that certain officials have overstepped their authority by imposing severe restrictions on meetings and gatherings (including worship services). But the Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General William Barr, is making it clear that churches cannot be treated unfairly.

In fact, last week the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest on behalf of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington D.C. Capitol Hill Baptist is a Southern Baptist church that believes the Bible instructs local churches to gather weekly for worship. After initially suspending in-person gatherings for months, the church began meeting outside in Virginia (requiring congregants to wear masks and social distance). When the church asked the D.C. government for permission to meet outside in D.C. (with safety protocols in place) they were denied by the mayor's office. This is even though D.C.'s mayor, Muriel Bowser, allowed and even participated in protests earlier this summer.

But it isn't just evangelical Christian churches that are being unfairly targeted. In New York City, Orthodox Jewish communities have been under strict scrutiny by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio throughout this pandemic. Earlier in the pandemic, de Blasio broke up a large Hasidic funeral and tweeted a warning to "the Jewish community, and all communities" not to have big gatherings. With New York City experiencing a new surge in cases after a long period of record-low infections, government leaders are once again pointing the finger at the Orthodox Jewish community.

At a news conference yesterday, Cuomo actually threatened to shut down Orthodox Jewish meetings if they did not abide by gathering restrictions. However, both de Blasio and Cuomo have publicly stated their support for police reform protests that involve thousands of people who aren't social distancing and include many participants who are not wearing masks.

This double standard has not gone unnoticed by the Justice Department. In fact, as Dreiband explained, the DOJ is following these stories and is reminding state and local officials that the First Amendment's guarantee of the right of assembly is not more constitutionally protected than the right to freely practice one's faith.