Sen. Hawley Demands Civil Rights Investigation Over Closed Churches, Citing Protests: ‘States Cannot Allow One But Prohibit the Other’


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Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) on Tuesday demanded that the Justice Department initiate a civil rights investigation to determine whether states have a right to keep churches shut down after allowing protests around the country, arguing they “cannot allow one but prohibit the other.”

“State officials across the country have blatantly violated the free exercise and free speech rights of religious Americans,” Hawley wrote in a letter addressed to Attorney General William Barr. “Under the First Amendment, state officials must not treat religious persons and groups worse than others, and they must not favor one kind of speech over another. 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.”

Rules imposed by many states amid the coronavirus pandemic religious gatherings to 10 or fewer people. President Donald Trump last month encouraged states to reopen religious venues, saying, “The governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now for this weekend.”

Some states have nonetheless been slow to do so, including California, which sought to partially reopen while leaving restrictions on religious gatherings in place — prompting the Justice Department to weigh in with a May 19 letter advising that the plan posed a legal problem. Hawley thanked Barr for issuing that guidance, and asked him to apply that reasoning especially in states where authorities failed to take sufficient action to quell protests related to the death of George Floyd.

“The First Amendment prohibits state officials from banning meetings based on the ideas that will be expressed,” Hawley wrote. “State officials have determined that the message behind the current protests is worth saying. But state officials cannot block religious speech while allowing protests simply because the states think the protest speech is more valuable.”

He added, “I urge you to remain engaged, open a full civil rights investigation, and bring whatever lawsuits are necessary to secure the First Amendment rights of all Americans.”

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