During a White House conference call with more than 500 faith leaders on Thursday, Attorney General William Barr assured the participating priests, rabbis, and ministers that the administration is on guard against overzealous state governments intent on “singling out” religious groups with punitive coronavirus lockdown measures.
Barr, who spoke for roughly ten minutes, told the religious leaders that, while “Draconian measures” were initially necessary to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the administration is now working to ensure that those measures are not extended unnecessarily, and will be particularly aggressive in combating efforts to apply them disproportionally to religious organizations.
“Standing up for liberty is one of our highest priorities, my highest priorities,” Barr said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided to National Review by a participant on the call. When reached for comment, the Department of Justice confirmed the participant’s description of the call.
The attorney general cited his intervention in the case of a Mississippi church as an example of legal action the administration will take to shield religious groups from being targeted by overzealous state and local authorities.
The Department of Justice filed a statement of interest last week in a lawsuit brought against the local police department by the Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss. Church officials claim that police officers were dispatched to their April 8 drive-in service and began “knocking on car windows, demanding drivers’ licenses and writing citations with $500 fines.”
The service was held one day after the city banned all drive-in events, in a move that seemed to violate the state’s designation of religious services as “essential” so long as they complied with Center for Disease Control social distancing guidelines.
“So this was a case of singling out a religious community,” Barr said.
A number of other states, including North Carolina and Indiana, have joined Mississippi in deeming religious services “essential,” provided they adhere to social distancing guidelines that are in some cases stricter than those applied to other essential businesses, such as grocery stores. Both states have limited the number of congregants to ten or fewer and in Indiana, the Eucharist must be “pre-packaged” if it is to be distributed at all.
Barr told the faith leaders that he has been in close contact with state attorneys general in recent days in an effort to identify any state or local ordinances that place a “special burden” on religious groups, though it’s not clear whether the aforementioned restrictions would qualify.
After spending the first weeks of the crisis insisting on the importance of social distancing and praising governors for implementing stringent lockdown regimes, the administration began this week to shift its messaging to accommodate the growing sense of frustration among many Americans — particularly those who live in less densely populated areas — who feel they should not be subject to the same kind of comprehensive regulations that have been applied to the residents of major cities.
Barr’s comments to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt earlier this week seemed to reflect that growing frustration.
“We’re looking carefully at a number of these rules that are being put into place,” Barr said. “And if we think one goes too far, we initially try to jawbone the governors into rolling them back or adjusting them. And if they’re not and people bring lawsuits, we file statement of interest and side with the plaintiffs.”
During the Thursday call, Barr extended that line of thinking to religious groups, telling the participants that he believes they will soon be able to hold outdoor services — and even return to indoor worship in certain parts of the country that have not been hit as hard as the major cities. He did not, however, provide any specific timelines.
“It may be possible to be a bit more liberal about how many people can gather inside…we hope to see a loosening of the restrictions community by community and based on diminution of infection rate,” he said.
Surgeon general Jerome Adams, who took over the call after Barr finished up, echoed his predecessors’ optimistic tone, saying he was “surprised at how well the American people did following guidelines.”
“It saved lives,” he added.