Bill Barr Tells U.S. Attorneys: Investigate Quarantine Orders For Civil Rights Violations

Bill Barr religious freedom
United States Senate – Office of Dan Sullivan / Public domain

State and local governors have issued a variety of orders and recommendations for their constituencies’ protection during a global pandemic. Attorney General Bill Barr is directing U.S attorneys to examine these regulations for civil rights violations.

Barr released a memo Monday. He opens with broad support for stay-at-home orders and business closures.

“Millions of Americans across the nation have been ordered to stay in their homes, leaving only for essential and necessary reasons, while countless businesses and other gathering places have been ordered to close their doors indefinitely. These kinds of restrictions have been necessary in order to stop the spread of a deadly disease but there is no denying that they have imposed tremendous burdens on the daily lives of all Americans.”

However, Barr then warns that restrictions cannot be allowed to interfere with religious practice or ‘disfavored speech.’

“…even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. The legal restrictions on state and local authority are not limited to discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. For example, the Constitution also forbids, in certain circumstances, discrimination against disfavored speech…”

While religious freedom and freedom of speech are protected rights, the definitions of those in political usage can be somewhat partisan. Barr isn’t laying out any specifics about what type of regulations would be pursued as discriminatory here, but it’s worth noting that there are lawsuits in progress over churches being forbidden (along with other businesses and organizations) to hold large gatherings and that protests at various state capitals have called stay-at-home orders a violation of First Amendment rights.

Barr doesn’t stop there, though. He goes on to warn that even business closures could be unconstitutional, despite his apparent support for them in his opening paragraph. (Emphasis added below.)

“…the Constitution also forbids, in certain circumstances, discrimination against disfavored speech and undue interference with the national economy.

Barr’s memo warns that, if a state or local order crosses this line, “the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court.”

Closing, he again straddles a line, simultaneously promising not to “unduly interfere” on the state and local level, and offering one more warning of ‘vigilance’ focused on these policies.

“Many policies that would be unthinkable in regular times have become commonplace in recent weeks, and we do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public. But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. We must therefore be vigilant to ensure its protections are preserved, at the same time that the public is protected.”

In less partisan times, a promise to protect constitutional rights while supporting state and local governments in their efforts might be reassuring to all Americans. However, in an era where the definition of ‘religious freedom’ is an ongoing partisan battle, and where even the response to a pandemic is blatantly partisan, Bill Barr’s memo may raise red flags for people across political divides.

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