Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., urged the Justice Department on Tuesday to investigate whether state officials applied coronavirus restrictions differently to George Floyd protests than to religious gatherings.
"Under the First Amendment, state officials must not treat religious persons and groups worse than others, and they must not favor one kind of speech over another," Hawley wrote in a letter to Attorney General William Barr.
"State officials have violated the free speech and free exercise rights of religious Americans by treating religious gatherings and speech differently than the speech and mass gatherings of protests. I urge you to launch a full civil rights investigation."
Hawley also argued that state officials were using "their support for this protest to infringe the free exercise and free speech rights of religious Americans."
Some religious leaders have chafed under coronavirus restrictions, which have prevented in-person services -- including weddings and funerals. Some have even mounted court challenges in an effort to force their doors open.
“Government officials who are banning or limiting church gatherings but encouraging protestors reveal their shutdown directives have more to do with anti-religious bigotry than the virus," First Liberty Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications Jeremy Dys told Fox News.
"The First Amendment is not multiple choice. We hope Attorney General Barr asks mayors like Bill de Blasio [in New York], Jacob Frey [in Minneapolis], and Muriel Bowser [in Washington D.C.] why they would join thousands in protests on their streets but prevent even the 12 disciples from meeting anywhere in their cities.”
De Blasio has defended the apparent bias in applying coronavirus regulations.
“When you see a nation, an entire nation, simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services,” he reporters last week.
“This is something that’s not about which side of the spectrum you’re on. It’s about a deep, deep American crisis. We have never seen anything quite like what we’ve seen in the last few days. This is a powerful, painful historical moment.”
It's unclear how the DOJ will respond, but the Trump administration has already sympathized with religious groups in multiple ways during the pandemic, with the president specifically saying on May 22 that he considered religious activities to be an "essential" service.
In April, Barr released a statement arguing that 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. For example, 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. Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens."