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The Justice Department (DOJ) may take action next week against local governments that have cracked down on religious services as widespread parts of the country are shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, a DOJ spokesperson said Saturday.
“While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly [and] not single out religious [organizations],” DOJ Director of Communications Kerri Kupec tweeted.
She said the Attorney General William Barr is “monitoring” such regulations.
The DOJ move would come as some churches are standing up to city governments that have blocked them from holding in-person services during the outbreak -- even in "drive-in" formats that keep people separated and in their own cars.
A judge in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of Mayor Greg Fischer’s ban on drive-in church services there.
“The Mayor’s decision is stunning,” District Judge Justin Walker, a former clerk to Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, wrote in a memorandum to the order. “And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional.”
Freedom of religion is the first of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” its text begins.
“Churches are strongly encouraged to hold services via Facebook Live, Zoom, Free Conference Call, and any and all other social media, streaming and telephonic platforms,” Mayor Errick Simmons’ office said in an April 7 press release announcing a ban on in-person and drive-in church services.
Attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom have filed a lawsuit challenging that order on behalf of the Temple Baptist Church in Greenville.
Kelly Shackelford, president of the First Liberty Institute, argued in an appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Friday that the city’s order “is just massively unconstitutional.”
“It targets churches in a way that it targets no other group,” he said. “Cars in parking lots are fine. It’s only a crime if the cars in the parking lot are at the church parking lot.”
The virus is highly contagious, and authorities at various levels of government around the country have been urging social distancing guidelines or implementing stay-at-home restrictions in an attempt to slow the spread.
Americans are being told to avoid close contact with one another, maintain good hand-washing hygiene and avoid leaving their homes as much as possible.
There were more than 500,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of Saturday afternoon and at least 20,000 deaths.