Eric S. Dreiband, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), told Breitbart News Sunday that Attorney General William Barr’s policy on protecting religious liberty had already seen results.
Simply by taking a stand, Dreiband said, Barr and the DOJ had succeeded in encouraging some local governments to back down from extreme coronavirus measures that discriminated against religious institutions.
“While shelter-in-place orders can be lawful, it is not lawful to treat religious worshippers worse than non-religious people who do similar things,” Dreiband said.
Barr has been vocal about the erosion of religious liberty during the coronavirus crisis, and active in fighting it.
In an interview with Fox News shortly before Easter, Barr expressed alarm at what he called “draconian” emergency measures taken by state and local governments to ban public gatherings, noting that he was concerned about “continuing encroachments on personal liberty.”
In the days that followed, state and local authorities — almost all of them Democrats — cracked down on churches. In Greenville, Mississippi, drive-thru services were banned; parishioners sitting in their cars received $500 fines from police. When the church sued, the DOJ filed a “statement of interest” backing the church.
“After we filed, the City of Greenville backed off, and announced they were not going to seek to enforce any penalties, or the citation,” Dreiband told Breitbart News Sunday.
“So they backed off there — for which, I give them credit for that. I mean, I think, you know, state and local governments have a difficult job to do, and sometimes, we all make mistakes.”
Later in the month, Barr issued a memorandum to U.S. Attorneys warning that the “First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers,” even in an emergency.
“[T]he Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis,” he noted.
Subsequently, last Sunday, the DOJ filed another “statement of interest” in support of a Virginia church catering to “recovering drug addicts and former prostitutes” whose pastor was issued a criminal citation for breaking Gov. Ralph Northam’s ban on religious gatherings of more than 10 people. (The church had held a service for 16 people in a 225-seat sanctuary). The governor has allowed larger gatherings in stores, including liquor stores.
Dreiband told Breitbart News Sunday that Virginia state authorities have not backed down, and the case is heading to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
But the DOJ continues to have success elsewhere. At the Powerline blog, Paul Mirengoff likewise noted Monday that the DOJ had encouraged Norman, Oklahoma, Mayor Breea Clark — a Democrat — to back down from a ban on religious services.
“As a result of the DOJ’s intervention, Clark reopened the city’s churches in time for Mother’s Day,” Mirengoff noted (original link).
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new book, RED NOVEMBER, is available for pre-order. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.