The office of Attorney General William Barr said action will be taken against officials who single out religious organizations to enforce social distancing rules in place to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus.
“During this sacred week for many Americans, AG Barr is monitoring govt regulation of religious services,” Barr spokeswoman Kerry Kupec wrote on Twitter Saturday night ahead of Easter. “While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs. Expect action from DOJ next week!”
Many churches plan to host drive-in services on Easter Sunday without violating social distancing enforcement.
In Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly issued an order limiting religious gatherings to 10 people or fewer. While it was overturned by a legislative panel on Wednesday, the state Supreme Court of Kansas ruled in the governor's favor late Saturday, The Topeka Capital Journal reports.
Late last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to “permanently” close churches and synagogues in particular if they refused to obey a stay-at-home order banning large gatherings.
Tony Perkins, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Christian conservative activist organization Family Research Council, criticized de Blasio’s comments on Twitter.
“De Blasio’s incendiary & unconstitutional threat to permanently shut down churches and synagogues must be retracted or corrected if it was a misstatement,” Perkins, who had previously spoken out against churches holding worship services during the outbreak, wrote in a tweet. “This type of religious hostility is what fuels non-compliance because it reveals a motive beyond public safety.”
Ronnie Floyd, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, also called de Blasio’s remarks a “matter of great concern.”
“The First Amendment states that there should be no law that prohibits the free exercise of religion and constitutional protections are unchanged by current circumstances,” Floyd, the former pastor of Cross Church in Arkansas and former SBC president, said in a statement to Fox News at the time.
In Kentucky, Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville prohibited churches from having drive-in services, which has been challenged by the religious liberty law firm First Liberty Institute on behalf of On Fire Christian Church in that city.
In North Carolina, the Wilmington Police Department acknowledged that drive-in services are not a violation of social distancing rules, but continued to “encourage” online services, citing local health officials’ concerns that “drive-in” services could be “unnecessarily risky.”
In Mississippi, Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons has also said drive-in services are prohibited.
In Hillsborough County, Florida, pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested late last month for violating the state’s order banning large worship gatherings.
Howard-Browne, the leader of Revival International Ministries and The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, is being represented by Liberty Counsel.
“The fact is that churches, including our client The River Church of Tampa, Florida, can and are obeying safety guidelines … but the enemy wants our churches shut down,” Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement at the time.
However, Howard-Browne has chosen to host an online-only service on Easter Sunday.