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Senator Josh Hawley To AG Barr: Investigate Religious Discrimination By Local Officials

William Barr Josh Hawley
Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) yesterday penned a letter to U.S. attorney general Bill Barr calling on him to investigate the disparities between how states are treating ongoing protests and the regulations they have placed on religious services during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“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,” Hawley said in the letter, first shared exclusively with National Review.

National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis quotes Hawley as saying Americans “are rightly angry about the death of George Floyd, and they should be able to protest peacefully” but points out that local officials’ failure to regulate those protests to ensure public health stands in stark contrast to the unnecessarily harsh restrictions that many localities have placed on churches and worship services as a result of the coronavirus.

“Many jurisdictions across the nation are imposing extraordinarily strict caps on religious gatherings—such as restricting religious gatherings to 10 or fewer people—even as those jurisdictions allow thousands of people to gather closely in protests,” Hawley writes according to Ms. DeSanctis.

Sen. Hawley’s letter also notes that the decision to place restrict religious gatherings while failing to require that protests enforce social-distancing standards is the result of discrimination based on state judgments about the content of the speech being expressed. “State officials have determined that the message behind the current protests is worth saying,” Hawley writes. “But state officials cannot block religious speech while allowing protests simply because the states think the protest speech is more valuable.”

Ms. DeSanctis reports Sen. Hawley concludes his letter by thanking Barr for supporting religious-liberty rights in a pending case in California and urging the attorney general to “launch a full civil rights investigation, and bring whatever lawsuits are necessary to secure the First Amendment rights of all Americans.”

We think Senator Hawley is spot on in the letter as reported by Ms. DeSanctis, but there’s another angle to this matter that was ignored by Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supreme Court majority in the recent decision in the case where South Bay United Pentecostal Church sought an emergency injunction against California Governor Gavin Newsom’s four stage Reopening Plan, which permits manufacturing, warehousing, retail, offices, seated dining at restaurants, and schools to reopen, but places strict limits on places of worship virtually prohibiting them from reopening. The church claimed Newsom’s plan violated the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court's liberal bloc in upholding the state's right to impose limits on congregations in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"Although California's guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment," Roberts said, in an opinion that denied a request by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church for relief from the rules.

In rejecting that challenge, Roberts wrote that the Constitution generally grants broad leeway to state leaders in circumstances of medical uncertainty. In particular, the chief justice found that Newsom's order was consistent in limiting not just religious services, but also various kinds of activities "where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time."

"The notion that it is 'indisputably clear' that the Government's limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable," wrote Roberts.

What is now obvious is that the rules imposed by the state of California not only favored one type of First Amendment speech over another, but they were completely arbitrary and capricious – there was absolutely no “science” behind any of the restrictions on religious gatherings.

Like Democrat Governor Whitmer in Michigan, California’s Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom oppressed people simply because he doesn’t like religious people and he figured he could get away with it – and Chief Justice John Roberts let him get away with it.

The toll-free Capitol switchboard is (1-866-220-0044), we ask CHQ readers and friends to call Senator Josh Hawley to thank him for standing for religious liberty and bringing the unnecessarily harsh restrictions that many localities have placed on churches and worship services to the attention of Attorney General Barr.

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