The U.S. Department of Justice has expressed concern that officials in Maryland are not treating religious services equally in their enforcement of social distancing guidelines.
Montgomery County announced that it was moving toward phase two of reopening, which would allow in-person worship services provided they restrict attendance to one person or family per 200 square feet of space.
While officially secular venues have similar restrictions on in-person gatherings, recently a protest was held at a library in Bethesda where hundreds of people were present.
Rather than punish the protesters, Montgomery County officials expressed support for them, saying their actions were constitutionally protected.
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, sent a letter to Montgomery County officials on Thursday expressing concern about the unequal treatment.
“The Department of Justice does not seek to dictate how Montgomery County determines what degree of activity and personal interaction should be allowed to protect the safety of their citizens,” wrote Dreiband.
“But in identifying the conditions under which gatherings for protest may proceed in Montgomery County, the Council should ensure that it imposes no more onerous conditions on gatherings for religious exercise than it does on gatherings for other purposes.”
The DOJ letter commended the County for its “respect to the freedom of assembly,” urging them to “do the same with the freedom of religious exercise.”
In a statement released Thursday, Dreiband said, “it is important for people of faith to be able to exercise their religion,” even during a time of crisis.
“Montgomery County has shown no good reason for not trusting congregants who promise to use care in worship the same way it trusts political protesters to do the same,” he added.
“The Department of Justice will continue to take action if states and localities infringe on the free exercise of religion or other civil liberties.”
In April, Attorney General William Barr said the DOJ would protect any houses of worship being unfairly treated by government officials when enforcing social distancing guidelines.
Last month, the DOJ sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom regarding “several civil rights concerns with the treatment of places of worship” in the state’s reopening plans.
Of particular concern was Newsom’s Executive Order N-60-20, which allowed schools, restaurants, and other secular gatherings to reopen earlier than in-person worship services.
“Whichever level of restrictions you adopt, these civil rights protections mandate equal treatment of persons and activities of a secular and religious nature,” the DOJ said in the letter.