Speed Reads

coronavirus and religion

The Justice Department is apparently working with conservative Christian groups to fight COVID-19 policies

Some churches and conservative Christian organizations are suing state and local governments for special exemptions to COVID-19 mitigation efforts, arguing that banning large gatherings violates their First Amendment rights. "They have been emboldened in recent days by increasing signs of support from a powerful ally: The Justice Department," The New York Times reports.

Attorney General William Barr assigned to top Justice Department lawyers Monday to monitor state and local policies "and, if necessary, take action to correct" those that "could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens." Justice Department officials and Trump Cabinet members have also participated in private and conference calls with leaders of conservatives organizations challenging measures implemented to slow the spread of the deadly new coronavirus, the Times reports.

The Justice Department has intervened formally in just one case so far, but conservative lawyers and activists hope the specter of DOJ involvement will be enough to persuade local leaders to create special carve-outs for churches. Tony Perkins, head of the Christian conservative Family Research Council, said he has pressed his case in calls with President Trump, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. "At the end of this month, we'll be at 45 days since the president first issued his guidelines," Perkins said. "God only kept Moses on the mountain for 40 days."

Conservative groups are suing not just Democratic governors like Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer but also Republicans like Greg Abbott of Texas, who exempted religious services from his executive order, saying they would follow social distancing guidelines voluntarily. "I'm unaware of a church that would want its constituents, its parishioners, to be exposed to COVID-19," Abbott explained March 31.

The American Civil Liberties Union is also challenging some state and local COVID-19 mitigation measures, but not for churches protesting what the group sees as necessary and constitutional bans, ACLU chief Anthony Romero told the Times. "If DOJ challenges legitimate state orders on the COVID pandemic, Attorney General Barr will never be able to say that he believes in states' rights with a straight face." Read more at The New York Times.