WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is calling on President Donald Trump to defend religious liberty in America.
Lee and nine other Republican senators sent a letter to Trump on July 23 asking the president to do everything in his power to prevent state and local governments from discriminating against Americans seeking to exercise their First Amendment right to freely practice their religions.
“As you are aware,” the senators wrote, “there continue to be reported cases of state and localities prohibiting religious entities, including houses of worship, from reopening safely despite compliance with safety precautions found in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance such as social distancing, building and surface sanitization, use of masks, etc. This discriminatory behavior violates our Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom …”
Although attempts to limit public gatherings have been a nationwide phenomenon since mid-March, California has become the epicenter of recent legal battles over public health concerns versus religious freedom in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
California churches were ordered closed along with retail businesses, office buildings, restaurants and shopping centers in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first response to the COVID-19 outbreak in early spring. By mid-May, many of those commercial establishments were allowed to reopen, but not churches.
When clergymen and women sued the state, Newsom’s authority was upheld by justices of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, who said that if a court “ … does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom (in the midst of a pandemic), it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”
When more than 1,200 unconvinced pastors threatened to reopen their churches in late May regardless of the state guidelines, Newsom finally relented.
More recently, however, Newsom announced an executive order “banning singing or chanting” as part of religious services in California, plus new limits on the size of such gatherings.
Lawyers for numerous churches are attacking that order by citing Newsom’s refusal to apply similar restrictions to massed chanting during the massive protest demonstrations against police authority taking place throughout California.
Here in Utah, officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints voluntarily suspended regular church services early in the pandemic and have since announced a phased resumption of activities consistent with local public health guidance. But relations between religious and governmental authorities in other parts of the United States have been much less amicable.
The letter from Lee and the other GOP senators requests that Trump take “additional measures” to ensure that churches, houses of worship and other religious institutions are able to reopen by following appropriate CDC guidelines.
“Your resolve and leadership on this issue would deliver a strong message in these most troubling times,” the letter concludes.
In addition to Lee, the letter to Trump was signed by Senators Mike Braun (R-Indiana), Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), Steve Daines (R-Montana), Kelly Loeffler (R-Georgia), Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Mississippi), Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas).