WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday weighed in on the potential imposition on religious rights caused by COVID-19 state shutdown orders, siding with a Mississippi church that sued the city of Greenville.
Department lawyers filed a statement of interest in support of Temple Baptist Church, which claims Greenville is seeking to prevent it from holding drive-in church services that comply with social distancing guidelines.
“The facts alleged in the complaint strongly suggest that the city’s actions target religious conduct” in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, the lawyers wrote.
The church has said that city police officers handed out $500 citations to those attending services. Greenville has since said it will not seek to collect the penalties, the Justice Department noted.
The Greenville dispute is one of several around the United States in which religious groups have objected to state or local restrictions on gatherings, saying they infringe on religious rights. Most houses of worship have voluntarily complied with shutdown orders, with some holding services online.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement the Justice Department will work to uphold the constitutional right to freely practice religion as states and cities seek to contain the spread of the coronavirus by limiting worship services.
“The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions,” he said, referring to the globally pandemic disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The Justice Department intervention follows a pattern in which the administration of President Donald Trump has sided with conservative Christians on various issues, including opposition to abortion rights and support of certain businesses which refuse service to LGBT people because of religious objections to gay marriage.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Lisa Lambert and Tim Ahmann; editing by Jonathan Oatis)