As President Donald Trump uses the bully pulpit to press state and local governments to ease their virus-related lockdowns, conservative activists and religious leaders are urging his administration to go further by unleashing a wave of lawsuits arguing that the measures are intruding on Americans’ legally protected rights to worship, protest and buy guns.
In a letter sent to Attorney General Bill Barr on Friday, the Conservative Action Project, a group of conservative leaders including Matt Schlapp of the American Conservative Union, Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch and Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots, called governors and local leaders “petty, would-be dictators” who had committed “rampant abuses of constitutional rights and civil liberties” as part of their response to the coronavirus.
Among the examples they include are “arresting pro-life counselors for peacefully standing outside an abortion clinic while maintaining social distance,” “arresting a man for surfing,” ticketing people attending drive-in church services, and “prohibitions on citizens’ rights to purchase firearms.”
The letter comes as Trump put pressure on Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia to ease up on social distancing measures a day after the White House released federal guidelines to reopen the economy. Protests, many led by Trump supporters, have cropped up across the country demanding state leaders reel in restrictions designed to stop the spread of the virus.
Trump told faith leaders on a call Friday afternoon that while he wants everyone to abide by his administration’s guidelines, he affirmed the right of churches to meet and their civil liberties to gather, according to two people on the call.
The president listened to recommendations from faith leaders, according to the participants, who shared their concerns about getting the economy re-opened.
“One brought up an issue regarding the clergy are not able to move around as effectively,” a participant said. “Even though guidance identifies clergy as providing essential services, it’s been a problem in New York that pastors have not been able to get into the cities to even record their messages from churches and it’s been a problem with clergy being able to get into hospitals and deliver last rites and that’s a problem.”
The White House offered appreciation for churches responding creatively with drive-in services, and for the DOJ stepping in when states are overzealous, a participant said.
“Many see this crisis as an opportunity to reduce liberty and enlarge government power in permanent ways,” the letter states. “We urge the DOJ to take numerous, specific actions, right now, to focus and act against this disturbing new danger to our country’s future.”
Asked about the conservatives’ missive to Barr, a Justice Department spokeswoman said only: “We are reviewing the letter.”
So far, Barr has staked out a middle-ground position: defending the authority of state officials to impose sweeping stay-at-home orders, while arguing that religious services shouldn’t face greater restrictions than other activities.
“Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens,” Barr said in a statement Tuesday. “While we believe that during this period there is a sufficient basis for the social distancing rules that have been put in place, the scope and justification of restrictions beyond that will have to be assessed based on the circumstances as they evolve.”
In an interview last week with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Barr echoed some of the rhetoric of conservatives chafing at the state-imposed restrictions. He referred to the directives as “draconian” and said governments soon need to move beyond telling “people to go home and hide under the bed.”
But the attorney general coupled nearly every comment with a reminder about the wide-ranging powers state officials have in an emergency.
“States have very broad — as you know, what we call police powers, very broad powers that the federal government doesn’t have to regulate the lives of their citizens, as long as they don’t violate the Constitution,” said Barr.
Barr also stopped short of promising the kind of massive enforcement drive Ingraham pushed for. Instead, the attorney general said Justice Department officials would keep a “careful eye” on the situation and that the department’s first step in such instances was to “jawbone” local officials to alter their approach.
Thus far, the Justice Department has formally stepped into only one legal dispute over a coronavirus crackdown: a lawsuit a Greenville, Miss., church filed after parishoners were issued $ 500 citations for attending a drive-in worship service ensconced in their cars.
DOJ filed a “statement of interest” in the case, urging the court to apply “strict scrutiny” to the case and to determine if there were less intrusive means of protecting public health.
But Justice Department lawyers seemed intent on preserving their ability to defend aggressive federal measures against the pandemic. Even as conservative activists sought to escalate their campaign highlighting the stay-at-home orders’ impact on businesses, protests and other activity beyond religion, DOJ attorneys said the rationale for such orders was indisputable and had to be recognized by the courts.
“As a general matter, prohibiting large gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 undeniably advances a compelling government interest,” they wrote.