Josh Hawley Asks Department of Justice to Protect Houses of Worship from ‘Unconstitutional Restrictions’

Sen. Josh Hawley during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., December 11, 2019 (Erin Scott/Reuters)

In a letter to Attorney General William Barr today, Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) asks that the Department of Justice begin filing suits in federal court to bring lawsuits against states and localities that are enforcing what Hawley calls “unconstitutional restrictions” against houses of worship.

As we reported exclusively here at NRO in early June, Hawley sent an initial letter to the DOJ, asking Barr to investigate the disparities between how states were treating ongoing mass protests and the strict regulations they had placed on religious services during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“State officials have violated the free speech and free exercise rights of religious Americans by treating religious gatherings and speech differently than the speech and mass gatherings of protests,” Hawley said in that previous letter.

In his letter today, Hawley urges Barr to “immediately bring lawsuits in federal court to uphold the constitutional right to free exercise and the rights of houses of worship being unjustly shuttered.”

He notes that after six months of the pandemic, “unconstitutional restrictions on religious exercise remain in many parts of the country, despite an ebb in COVID-19 cases and the lessening of other restrictions.”

Hawley points to San Francisco, where churches are still forbidden from conducting religious services indoors and must limit all outdoor services to twelve people. Meanwhile, the city is permitting indoor gyms to reopen. In some parts of Washington State, Hawley writes “churches are subject to a specially burdensome 25 percent capacity limitation, while restaurants and other businesses are allowed up to 50 percent of capacity,” and violators have been subject to fines of up to $100,000.

“The American people have endured six months of closures and restrictions on their houses of worship. Over that period, they have faced countless harms: missed holidays and religious celebrations, canceled weddings, and unattended funerals, to say nothing of the painful absence of regular worship,” the letter concludes. “These continued violations of the First Amendment are outrageous. I ask that the Department file suit against these jurisdictions and others to uphold Americans’ rights.”

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