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Justice Department speaks out on church closures, condemns religious freedom violations in new statement

Attorney General William P. Barr tries to clarify how to balance public health with religious freedom.

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Attorney General William Barr speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Washington.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Government officials do not need to exempt churches from social distancing guidelines in order to respect religious freedom, but they do need to avoid imposing special restrictions on faith groups, according to a new statement on church closures from the Department of Justice.

“If a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size or otherwise impede religious gatherings,” Attorney General William P. Barr wrote.

The statement attempts to resolve confusion over how a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic affects the Constitution’s religious exercise protections. Government officials are allowed to enforce policies that keep the public safe, even when that means temporarily banning large, in-person worship services, the statement explained.

“When the community as a whole faces an impending harm of this magnitude, and where the measures are tailored to meeting the imminent danger, the Constitution does allow some temporary restriction on our liberties that would not be tolerated in normal circumstances,” Barr said.

Religious freedom experts shared similar thoughts with the Deseret News last month when bans on large group gatherings were first being handed down. Social distancing guidelines are lawful if they’re reasonable and neutrally applied, said Michael Moreland, a law and religion expert at Villanova University, at the time.

“So long as those restrictions are neutral and applicable to everybody, religious institutions have to abide by them,” he said.

However, under the Constitution, it’s not OK for religious organizations to be singled out for mistreatment. For example, the police can’t prevent a small Bible study from meeting if book clubs or basketball games are going on unimpeded, according to the statement.

“Government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity,” Barr said.

In the past few weeks, several churches have filed lawsuits alleging such mistreatment. The Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in one such case out of Greenville, Mississippi, supporting the church’s claim that local officials had gone too far.

“The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending ... parking lot services — while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open,” the new statement explained.

Government officials should be focused on ensuring people have access to important spiritual resources at this difficult time, not unlawfully interfering with religious practice, Barr wrote.

“Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true more so than ever,” he said.