In remarks on the Senate floor yesterday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) condemned state and local leaders for enforcing harsh restrictions against religious Americans during the COVID-19 outbreak while failing to impose similar regulations to ensure safety during recent protests.
“I have no criticism for the millions of Americans who peacefully demonstrated in recent days. Their cause is beyond righteous,” McConnell said. “It is the inconsistency from leaders that has been baffling.”
In particular, McConnell mentioned D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser, who has actively encouraged and abetted protests but has yet to permit religious services to resume in the city. “Here in the District of Columbia, the mayor celebrates massive street protests,” the majority leader pointed out. “She actually joins them herself, but on her command, churches and houses of worship remain shut. I believe even the largest church buildings in the District are still subject to the 10-person limit for the things the mayor deems inessential.”
He also observed that in both Michigan and New York City, government officials have failed to apply their stay-at-home policies uniformly, giving enormous leeway to protestors while continuing to block or unduly limit worship services. McConnell noted that the rights protected by the First Amendment, including freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, “have the same constitutional pedigree” and thus are equally protected. “But apparently, while protests are still permissible, prayer is still too dangerous,” he added, saying this is akin to playing “‘red light/green light’ with the First Amendment.”
McConnell noted, too, that an order in one California county permits protests involving 100 people but bans outdoor gatherings, whether religious or social in nature, of more than twelve people. “These governments are acting like the coronavirus discriminates based on the content of the people’s speech, but it is the leaders who are doing that,” he said.
McConnell’s remarks came on the same day that Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) wrote to Attorney General Bill Barr, asking that the Department of Justice investigate instances of local officials discriminating against religious believers while allowing protestors to violate stay-at-home orders.
“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.
“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,” he added.