Top Democrats sprang to the defense of Virginia on Monday, suggesting the Justice Department overstepped its bounds when it said the state trampled religious rights by citing a church that held services despite a shutdown order.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and three colleagues said states have the lead when it comes to policing their emergency shutdown orders.
They told Attorney General William P. Barr his “efforts to suspend stay-at-home directives” were constitutionally suspect.
“Under relevant legal precedent, content-neutral restrictions on the right to assemble, for example, are justifiable so long as they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest,” the lawmakers said.
The Justice Department weighed in on behalf of a pastor who was criminally cited for holding in-person services for 16 people, when the governor’s shutdown order only allows for up to 10 people for nonessential services.
The church says it’s facilities can seat 250, so the 16 people were socially distanced, and question why some stores are allowed to remain open with those rules while churches are not.
Virginia officials counter that their 10-person limit doesn’t single out churches, and insisted it was a “good faith” effort to control the spread of COVID-19.
Churches have been winning reprieves across the country.
A mayor in Oklahoma last week caved after a warning letter from the Justice Department and allowed churches to reopen Sunday. And a federal judge in Kentucky on Friday halted the governor’s policy that had prevented houses of worship from holding services.
“If social distancing is good enough for Home Depot and Kroger, it is good enough for in-person religious services which, unlike the foregoing, benefit from constitutional protection,” U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove wrote. “The Constitution will endure. It would be easy to put it on a shelf in times like this, to be pulled down and dusted off when more convenient. But that is not our tradition. Its enduring quality requires that it be respected even when it is hard.”
But the Democratic lawmakers, in their letter, suggested a balancing test for religious liberty, demanding to know whether the Justice Department was “taking public health considerations into account” when defending religious liberties.
The Democrats accused the Justice Department of an “eagerness to litigate against these measures.”
They also complained about the overall federal approach to the pandemic, saying President Trump has been erratic and better planning and more equipment could solve things.