Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) 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 Floyd’s death, even taking photos with protesters, despite having criticized protests over other causes in the last few weeks.
“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.
Public perception over large public gatherings has changed after Floyd’s death. Over 1,200 health professionals signed an open letter that called for the government to not “disband protests under the guise of maintaining public health for COVID-19 restrictions.” The letter attempted to differentiate the current Floyd protests with previous protests against stay-at-home orders.
Barr has been vocal about the need to protect constitutional rights and civil liberties even during a public health crisis. The attorney general has previously said that while it is important that state and local officials put in broad measures to mitigate the spread of the pandemic at the beginning, these measures should be rolled back when the flow of cases begins to ebb. He said officials should then look into more targeted approaches.
He has also issued a memorandum directing federal prosecutors to “be on the lookout” for state and local restrictions that could be running afoul of the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to The Epoch Times’ request to comment on the letter.
An earlier version of the article misstated the abbreviation for Missouri.