Barr: We’ve had to ‘jawbone’ local governments to protect religious rights

By WND Staff

U.S. Attorney General William Barr (video screenshot)

Attorney General William Barr says the Justice Department has had to “jawbone” a few local governments for restricting religious rights in response to the the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve seen situations even up to now where some jurisdictions impose special burdens on religion that they don’t also apply to other kinds of gatherings and events and we jawboned the local governments saying they really couldn’t do that,” he said in an interview Wednesday with Fox News host Laura Ingraham.

“What they were doing to churches they had to do to everyone. They changed their rules,” he said. “We’re going to keep an eye on all these actions.”

See the interview:

At issue are the stay-at-home orders that have shut down church meetings along with businesses and other public gatherings.

Barr explained that restrictions on the First Amendment right to worship can be imposed if there is a “compelling” government interest, such as the public’s health.

However, there are many ways to interpret what is “compelling,” and any restrictions must be imposed equally on other types of gatherings and cause the least burden on First Amendment rights.

Across the nation, religious rights groups have questioned many actions by local authorities.

Liberty Counsel said Thursday that police in Virginia served a summons to the pastor of Lighthouse Fellowship for holding a service in which 16 people were spaced far apart in a sanctuary that seats nearly 300.

The charge could result in a year in jail and a fine of $2,500.

Columnist Todd Starnes reported police in Greenville, Mississippi, raided a parking lot at Temple Baptist Church and ticketed, with possible $500 fines, people who were sitting in their cars listening to a sermon on broadcast from the church via a radio signal.

A Florida pastor was arrested for holding church services.

In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly restricted church services but was overruled by the state’s Legislative Coordinating Council, which sided with the state attorney general.

The governor had limited in-person worship services and funerals to 10 persons, but AG Derek Schmidt said the order violated the Kansas Constitution.

A number of other similar faceoffs have developed.

Barr said there have been occasions in which liberties have been restricted during emergencies such as war or “in this case a potentially devastating pandemic.”

“But they have to be balanced, whatever steps you take have to be balanced against the civil liberties of Americans and cannot be used as an excuse for broad deprivations of liberty,” he said.

He said the Department of Justice will watch “what the federal government is imposing … but also what the states do.”

“The states have very broad, as you know, what we call police powers, they have very broad powers that the federal government doesn’t have to regulate the lives of their citizens, as long as they don’t violate the Constitution,” he said.

“We’ll be keeping a careful eye on that.”

Barr said religious liberty is the “first liberty, the foundation of our republic.”

“And a free society depends on a vibrant religious life among the people. Anytime that’s encroached upon by the government I’m very concerned.”

He said the U.S. government should, as soon as possible, lift restrictions on church assemblies and explore other options for protecting the public.

“When this period of time at the end of April expires, I think we have to allow people to adapt more than we have, and not just tell people to go home and hide under the bed,” he said.

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