Pandemic in Review: How the Trump Administration Treated Religious Liberty During the Health Crisis

June 5, 2020
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by Jorge Gomez • 9 min read

As the nation begins to reemerge from the height of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s worth taking a look at how government officials responded to ensure that religious freedom is balanced with the need for public health.

First Liberty’s legal team has been devoted throughout the course of the pandemic to making sure those in authority would respect the Constitution. In multiple cases, our attorneys fought—and succeeded—against the terrible treatment of religious liberty and the abuses of power that, unfortunately, occurred at the hands of many state and local officials.

But while some local officials lost sight of the First Amendment, what was the federal government’s response as it relates to religious freedom?

The president, his cabinet and the executive branch consistently prioritized religious freedom during the COVID crisis, taking actions that helped ensure it will remain America’s first and most essential liberty.

The Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis. Religious liberty has been—and continues to be—essential in America.

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President Trump: America’s Houses of Worship Are Essential

Just prior to Memorial Day, the president made an important announcement designating places of worship as “essential,” and calling on governors across several states to allow them to reopen consistent with public health guidelines.

Below is a short video clip of First Liberty attorney Jeremy Dys, who appeared on the Associated Press to provide expert insight on the president’s statement:

For people of faith, the president’s words offered hope as officials repeatedly abused their power and cracked down on religious freedom in key hotspots, like Illinois, New Jersey, New York and California.

In his statement, the president pointed out that secular businesses, retail and other commercial activities, were allowed to reopen and resume operations at higher capacities. He took a strong stance against governors, state and local leaders who imposed policies (at various stages of the pandemic) that unfairly targeted and restricted houses of worship.

A few days after the president’s announcement, First Liberty secured two significant victories for religious institutions to safely reopen:

  • Kentucky: One win was on behalf of our client Ken Ham, CEO of the Answers in Genesis ministry, who announced that his plan to reopen the faith-based Ark Encounter museum in early June. Following the president’s remarks, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced that he would ease restrictions to allow attractions and museums (including the Ark) to reopen on June 8.
  • Minnesota: A second victory was on behalf of River Valley Church, the second-largest house of worship in the state. Again, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced a reopening plan for churches shortly after the president delivered his statement.

William Barr and Department of Justice: No Pandemic Exception to Religious Freedom

U.S. Attorney General (AG) William Barr made it clear throughout the epidemic that the Constitution isn’t suspended in times of crisis.

He mobilized the Department of Justice (DOJ) to protect the First Amendment rights of Americans, most evident when he issued a memo to his more than 90 U.S. attorneys, urging them to “be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”

During Easter weekend, First Liberty secured a victory for King James Bible Baptist Church in Greenville, MS, a church prevented by its local mayor from hosting drive-in services consistent with CDC guidelines. The DOJ was on the frontlines at the same time, filing a 14-page statement of interest in support of another Greenville church fighting to reclaim its right to hold drive-in services.

In Virginia, Lighthouse Fellowship Church was in a legal battle after police broke up its Palm Sunday service and charged the pastor with a misdemeanor for violating the governor’s order. Once again, the DOJ intervened with a statement of interest denouncing the unlawful discrimination by state officials against this church.

Just a couple of weeks ago, as places of worship began to gradually reopen, the DOJ sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom. The letter warned the governor about certain restrictions and policies that would discriminate against churches. It appears the DOJ’s action prompted Gov. Newsom to ease restrictions. He announced a plan for churches to resume in-person gatherings.

Small Business Administration: Economic Relief for Churches & Faith-Based Nonprofits

After Congress passed the $2 trillion stimulus package (the CARES Act), First Liberty worked with our volunteer network attorneys to make sure houses of worship and faith-based nonprofits could participate in relief aid. Together, we provided expertise and input to the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

Thanks to our involvement, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) adopted an interim rule that ensures churches and faith-based ministries are eligible to receive loans under the legislation.

The quick adoption of this rule by the Trump administration was a big victory for religious institutions. Access to relief funds was critical for churches and ministries across the nation at the height of the crisis, and allowed many of them to continue providing essential services to millions of Americans.

Department of Labor: Strengthening Religious Liberty Protections for Faith-Based Organizations Partnering with the Government

Even as the federal government shifted much of its efforts to address the COVID-19 crisis, executive branch agencies continued implementing policies to make sure religious freedom would be protected in day-to-day procedures.

For example, U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Eugene Scalia issued a directive and new guidance protecting religious liberty for faith-based organizations that partner with the federal government.

The DOL joined several other executive agencies that have set forth guidelines to give faith-based groups an equal footing with their secular counterparts. These include the DOJ, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Education, among others.

As we saw throughout the pandemic, religious ministries, charities, and other organizations stand ready to partner with the government to help individuals in need. Take the example of Samaritan’s Purse who set up a field hospital in New York City’s Central Park as a way to fill the gap in case the health facilities in the city were overrun.

This proposed rule protects their right to be free from anti-religious discrimination in the contracting process and ensures that the government is free to contract with the entities that are best able to provide services to the public—regardless of religious affiliation.

The Fight Never Ceases

In this critical time when the health of our constitutional system hangs in the balance, the actions of the president and his administration are “essential” to the preservation of our most foundational freedoms—including religious liberty.

But as the COVID crisis has shown, the fight for religious freedom is far from over. The federal government still has much work to do as America’s churches, people of faith and religious institutions transition back to normal.

And that means First Liberty urgently needs YOU to rise to the challenge, because it’s only with your support that our attorneys can keep leading and winning the fight for our First Freedom. Will you go All In Together with us, right now?

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