Barr Says Government 'May Not' Impose 'Special Restrictions' on Religious Institutions


As several states implemented stay at home orders aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, some officials took drastic measures to keep people from congregating. 

In one instance, churchgoers in Mississippi were fined $500 for attending a drive-in church service. The governor of Kentucky also said he would require those who went to church on Easter Sunday to quarantine for 14 days, as IJR has previously reported

Attorney General William Barr released a statement on Tuesday afternoon that said, “Social distancing, while difficult and unfamiliar for a nation that has long prided itself on the strength of its voluntary associations, has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of American lives from an imminent threat.”

The statement continued, “In exigent circumstances, when the community as a whole faces an impending harm of this magnitude, and where the measures are tailored to meeting the imminent danger, the constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances.”

However, Barr said that a global pandemic does not constitute a reason to impose restrictions on religious institutions. 

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“But 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.”

Additionally, Barr said that the Justice Department had filed a Statement of Interest in favor of the churchgoers in Mississippi.

“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. “

He continued, “While we believe that during this period there is a sufficient basis for the social distancing rules that have been put in place, the scope and justification of restrictions beyond that will have to be assessed based on the circumstances as they evolve.”

In light of concerns that state and local governments were signaling out religious institutions for special restrictions, Barr’s spokesperson said, “AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services.”

The statement added, “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly and not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!”

On Tuesday, Barr said the Justice Department would “continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions.”

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