Hawley Urges Barr to Launch Civil Rights Probe Into State Restrictions on Religious Gatherings

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Miss.) is asking Attorney General William Barr to launch a civil rights investigation into jurisdictions that appear to be singling out religious individuals and groups for restrictions despite allowing George Floyd protests to take place.

Hawley expressed his concerns in a letter to the attorney general on Tuesday arguing that state and local officials cannot be permitted to continue imposing strict caps on religious gatherings such as limiting in-person services to 10 or fewer people while they allow thousands of people to gather closely during demonstrations.

“States cannot allow one but prohibit the other,” Hawley wrote in his letter (pdf).

He acknowledged that “people are rightly angry about the death of George Floyd” and should be able to protest peacefully but he added that when officials treat religious gatherings differently to mass gatherings of protests, it violates free speech and free exercise rights under the U.S. Constitution.

“The First Amendment prohibits state officials from banning meetings based on the ideas that will be expressed,” he said. “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 ended his letter urging Barr to open a full civil rights investigation and to bring lawsuits that are necessary to secure the First Amendment rights of Americans.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also raised concerns on the Senate floor on Tuesday about the “double standards” taking place across the country, saying that some state and local leaders are praising the protests over Floyds death, even taking photos with protesters, despite having criticized protests over other causes in the last few weeks.

mitch mcconnell
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks during a news briefing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on April 21, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“I have no criticism for the millions of Americans who peacefully demonstrated in recent days. Their cause is beyond righteous. It is the inconsistency from leaders that has been baffling,” McConnell said, citing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser as examples.

“Here in the District of Columbia, the mayor celebrates massive street protests. She actually joins them herself, but on her command, churches and houses of worship remain shut,” he said. “I believe even the largest church buildings in the District are still subject to the 10-person limit for the things the mayor deems inessential.”

He argued that free speech, free assembly, and free exercise of religion are all First Amendment rights that have “the same constitutional pedigree.”

“Politicians are now picking and choosing within the First Amendment itself,” he said.

Protesters have flouted social distancing guidelines and have gathered in large numbers over the past week to demonstrate the death of Floyd, a black man who died while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Over the weekend, the number of protesters reached record levels as people flooded the streets of cities including San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, and Chicago, in which many of them appeared peaceful.

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