U.S. Attorney General William Barr has directed every U.S. Attorney “to be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”
“Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times have become commonplace in recent weeks, and we do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public,” Barr said. “But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected.”
The national directive came one week after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance on houses of worship being able to hold in-person meetings. The guidance was in response to an order imposed by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, which directed law enforcement to fine churches that were holding services.
A Houston-based CEO of a Texas medical company, Dr. Steven Hotze, and four pastors, along with U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, sued. One week later, Gov. Greg Abbott released a 63-page guidance as part of his latest executive order to open the state. In it, he reiterated that churches can meet in person and that the state law supersedes all local ordinances that contradict it.
Hidalgo’s latest order requiring residents to wear masks for 30 days despite Harris County having far less than a one percent infection rate, is moot, as state law supersedes it. The Houston Police Officers Union also said it would not enforce Hidalgo’s “draconian” order. The head of the union said it was “clear that the so-called leader of Harris County lacks any critical thinking skills, but let me assure the public, our officers do.”
The Attorney General’s letter also came two days after assuring 500 faith leaders last Thursday on a phone call that the Trump administration “was on guard against overzealous state governments intent on ‘singling out’ religious groups with punitive coronavirus lockdown measures.”
“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, which was confirmed by the Department of Justice.
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. To date, North Carolina and Indiana have also followed Texas in stating that religious services are considered “essential” and can be open for in-person services, with exceptions.
“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” Barr said in the letter to attorneys general. “The legal restrictions on state and local authority are not limited to discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. For example, the Constitution also forbids, in certain circumstances, discrimination against disfavored speech and undue interference with the national economy.”
“If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court,” Barr added.
The Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, have been tasked with overseeing and coordinating the Attorney General’s directive. If states do not comply, Barr said “corrective action” will be taken.