by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Over Memorial Day weekend, California, Minnesota, and Vermont, three of the five states still upholding complete bans on church services, relaxed their restrictions.
These results were a needed win for Trump, whose approval rating with many faith groups has slipped in the past month, partly because of his inconsistent attitude on churches remaining open during the coronavirus pandemic. And it’s a win Trump wouldn’t have scored without his dedicated enforcer on religious liberty issues: Attorney General William Barr.
Even before churches began suing states for alleged First Amendment violations, Barr was already sensing the coming fight over church closures. While Trump urged people to stay home for Easter, Barr said he was “very concerned” that churches were being given the short shrift in the rush to lock down the country.
“We have to be very careful to make sure that the draconian measures that are being adopted are fully justified,” he told Fox News in early April, as he explained his worries about possible state-level religious liberty infringements. “Whatever they’re doing to churches, they have to do to everybody.”
And since then, under Barr’s leadership, the Justice Department has intervened in multiple coronavirus-related disputes between church leaders and state governments. With each successive case, the department has taken a stance that favors equality in treatment for churches.
In the first case, Barr filed a statement of interest supporting a Mississippi church defying a local order banning drive-in services. In the second, the department backed a Virginia church suing Gov. Ralph Northam for shutting down its in-person services. In other notable cases, it sent letters to California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, criticizing them for “unequal” treatment. …
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