The mayor in Norman, Oklahoma, announced Friday evening she will amend her shutdown orders to allow churches and other houses of worship to reopen this weekend in time for Mother’s Day — though she still defended her thinking behind the ban.
Mayor Breea Clark took to Facebook to say she had the best of intentions, and still believes religious gatherings should face the same restrictions as other large gatherings, rather than the rules that apply to businesses. But after a warning by the Justice Department, she said the fight wasn’t worth it.
“I will not feud with the federal government, especially not over one week,” she said.
Timothy J. Downing, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Oklahoma, had written Ms. Clark earlier in the day to say that if she was allowing restaurants, retail stores and salons to open, under social distancing and occupancy guidelines, then churches and other religious facilities must be granted at least those same rights.
To subject religious practice to more stringent rules could run afoul of the First Amendment’s guarantee of liberty, he wrote in his letter.
“There is no pandemic exception for civil liberties in the Constitution,” Mr. Downing said Friday night after the mayor’s reversal. “The free exercise of religion is one of our bedrock liberties and for this reason I am grateful to the mayor for allowing churches to open this Sunday.”
Attorney General William P. Barr has told U.S. Attorneys to be on the lookout for coronavirus shutdown orders that impinge on constitutional rights.
The Justice Department has stepped in to defend a Virginia church that was cited by Virginia for holding an in-person service with 16 people. And last month the department forced a Mississippi city to back down after it issued $500 fines to people who attended a drive-in service.
In Norman, Ms. Breea issued a proclamation last week laying out phases of reopening. Restaurants, retail stores, gyms, sports playing fields and pet grooming operations were all allowed to open. But the mayor said churches and other houses of worship must remain closed until May 15.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter on Thursday took to Twitter to urge the mayor to rethink her ban.
She fired back, questioning why Mr. Hunter hadn’t just called her.
“This is how you reach out to me about your concern?” she wrote, also on Twitter.
Ms. Clark also said the reverend at her church supported her decision.
And in a statement, posted online by local media, the city rebuffed Mr. Hunter’s complaints.
“The city understands the importance of its citizen’s[sic.] rights to exercise their religious and non-religious beliefs freely and to assemble peaceably. However, constitutional rights have never been absolute,” the city said. “Rather, they are subject to a balancing test with state interest.”
The city cited a 1944 Supreme Court ruling that held the right to practice religion “does not include liberty to expose the community … to a communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”
That case dealt with a parent’s ability to cite religion as a reason to avoid compulsory vaccination.
A day later, though, the mayor took to Facebook to reverse — though she signaled that she was not convinced by the arguments, but rather didn’t want the fight.
She suggested there was a tension between “the ideals this nation was founded on” and “science.”
“Foundational principles of this country are always to be respected. But the struggles this pandemic has created cannot be ignored,” she said.
She added: “Many people have been referring to the Constitution as of late. I have as well — specifically the preamble and the part about promoting the general welfare.”
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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