In a statement on Saturday, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said that Attorney General William Barr was closely watching state and local officials to make sure that they respected and protected the First Amendment rights of worshipers over the holiday weekend. Days after Barr confirmed in an interview that local leaders had the authority to shut down churches during the coronavirus pandemic, Kupec reminded those leaders that they could not exclusively target churches while leaving other gatherings to go on as scheduled.
“During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services,” Kupec tweeted. “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!”
Kupec’s statement would seem to suggest that Attorney General Barr is not entirely satisfied that all state and local officials are playing fair with church services. If so, he is right to be concerned. For instance, we saw police in Greenville, Mississippi hand out $500 fines to people who attended a drive-in church service, even though all parishoners remained in their cars with the windows rolled up. This is about as good as social distancing can get without staying home, and it’s certainly just as safe as going to pick up food from a drive-thru restaurant.
“One of the police officers said the mayor wanted to make an example of our church,” Temple Baptist Church Pastor Arthur Scott said Wednesday. “I told them to get some more tickets ready because we will be preaching Sunday morning and Sunday night.”
Scott has retained the services of the law firm Alliance Defending Freedom. In a statement this week, Ryan Taylor of ADF said it was obvious that certain officials were only too eager to shut down church services during this period of lockdown.
“Government is clearly overstepping its authority when it singles out churches for punishment, especially in a ridiculous fashion like this,” said Taylor. “In Greenville, you can be in your car at a drive-in restaurant, but you can’t be in your car at a drive-in church service. That’s not only nonsensical, it’s unconstitutional, too.”
Indeed, but what about the churches that have remained open for regular services? While most can agree that we don’t need to see packed pews at a time where a virus is spreading throughout the community, what is there to say about this case from Virginia, as covered by John Fund in National Review:
In some places, the police are actually directly entering churches. Last Sunday, a police officer in Chincoteague, Va., entered the Lighthouse Fellowship and was upset they were holding a church service for 16 people spaced far apart in a sanctuary that seats 293. He ordered that, per Governor Ralph Northam’s order, no more than ten people could participate in the service. After it was finished, two police officers entered the service, gave the pastor a criminal summons, and told him that if he dared to conduct an Easter service, everyone attending would be given one.
That’s a bridge beyond, is it not? Was it more dangerous for these 16 people to be socially distanced in a church than it would be for them to walk the aisles at Walmart?
It seems to us, unfortunately, that there are a few too many local officials using the coronavirus as an excuse to exercise a little bit of tyrannical authority in violation of the Constitution. A shutdown is a shutdown, but when you have police and politicians going after church attendees in a way that differs from the way they go after other gatherings, that’s a huge problem. It must not stand.