In a letter sent this morning, Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) called on U.S. attorney general Bill Barr 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 alleges in the letter, a copy of which was provided exclusively to National Review.
Hawley acknowledges that that 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.
He 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.”
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.”