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WASHINGTON (ChurchMilitant.com) - The nation's top justice official is warning state leaders not to target Americans of faith amid the pandemic.
In a statement issued Monday, Attorney General William P. Barr affirmed that "Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens."
Barr's statement is being met with applause by First Amendment advocates.
General Counsel Mike Berry of First Liberty Institute (FLI) — an organization that assists in legal battles over religious freedom — told Church Militant, "Attorney General Barr's strong statement of support for religious liberty, even during these unique circumstances, makes clear that our constitutional rights cannot be suspended by a pandemic."
Berry added FLI and its clients are "grateful to have an attorney general who understands that there is an appropriate way to balance public health with religious freedom."
Barr stated that "government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity."
He elaborated: "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."
Barr made clear the necessity of President Trump's guidelines, which call on "all Americans to do their part to slow the spread of a dangerous and highly contagious virus. Those measures are important because the virus is transmitted so easily from person to person, and because it all too often has life-threatening consequences for its victims, it has the potential to overwhelm health care systems when it surges."
"Scrupulously observing these guidelines is the best path to swiftly ending COVID-19's profound disruptions to our national life and resuming the normal economic life of our country," he underscored.
"But even in times of emergency," he emphasized, "when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers."
Barr also referred to a statement of interest filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) dated April 14 in support of a Mississippi church suing the city of Greenville and its mayor, Errick D. Simmons, a Democrat, for ticketing congregants during a drive-in service.
The statement of interest foregrounded two arguments:
Congregants of Temple Baptist Church in Greenville were listening to their pastor preach over their car radios, while sitting in their cars in the church parking lot with their windows rolled up on April 8 as per safety guidelines.
Greenville police ticketed congregants $500 per person for attending the parking lot services, even while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants with their car windows open. (The city has since stated it will drop the fines, but will continue to enforce the order while the litigation plays out.)
"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 [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and state recommendations regarding social distancing," Barr stated.
"There is no pandemic exception ... to the fundamental liberties the Constitution safeguards," the DOJ said. "Indeed, individual rights secured by the Constitution do not disappear during a public health crisis."
In reaction to the DOJ's intervention in the Mississippi case, Jeremy Dys, an FLI special counsel, told The Epoch Times that he hopes "that mayors and municipalities will take care to ensure their orders in the defense of the public health do not single out or target churches, synagogues or houses of worship."
Dys agreed with the DOJ's arguments, saying that government officials are required by law and the Constitution to treat religious and other organizations equally. He added that places of worship are important during these uncertain times.
FLI represented On Fire Christian Center in a Kentucky case that Church Militant recently reported on. In that case, a federal judge thwarted the effort of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat, to prohibit drive-in worship services at a local church on Easter Sunday.
"America needs its churches to provide the calm, comfort and care they uniquely provide to communities across the country," Barr said at the end of his statement. "And the government needs churches and other houses of worship to do just that during this pandemic."