The Justice Department (DOJ) praised a Maryland county council on Wednesday for protecting the First Amendment rights of protesters and said it now expects them to extend the same protections to religious gatherings.
In a June 10 letter to the Montgomery County Council, Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division praised the county’s permitting of public anti-racism protests in spite of its current restrictions on public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. He added that the county should give religious gatherings the same recognition.
“Your support for peaceful assembly and speech follows the best of our nation’s traditions,” Dreiband told Montgomery County, which borders Washington, D.C.
Protesters took to the streets in recent weeks in the Washington suburbs of Germantown, Bethesda, Gaithersburg, and other parts of the county, despite public health orders against “social, community, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings and events of more than 10 people.”
“Of no less importance, of course, is the First Amendment’s protection for religious exercise,” Dreiband said of the protests. He added that “we anticipate” that the council would amend the executive order to allow for religious gatherings as part of “the full range of rights protected by the First Amendment.”
The county council issued a public statement of support for the protests against racism on June 1, the same day that a county executive order continued restrictions on in-person religious gatherings because of the threat of their spreading the pandemic.
Montgomery County is still restricting religious services to just drive-in or remote services, according to the June 1 Executive Order No. 070-20.
Churches in the county will be allowed to have indoor and outdoor services with more than 10 people starting in “Phase 2” of the county’s reopening plan; in that scenario, one congregant or family would be allowed for every 200 square feet of service space.
The county says it will likely move to phase 2 of reopening next week “if data trends continue,” county executive Marc Elrich said on Wednesday as reported by WUSA 9. “We expect to allow modified indoor retail shopping and indoor religious services, lap swimming, and more,” he said.
In its letter, the DOJ also cited a June 2 protest that reportedly took place inside Bethesda Library to argue that indoor religious services should be allowed as a constitutional requirement.
“We understand that protests are typically held outdoors—where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is lower—and that religious services are typically held indoors,” Dreiband’s letter said. Yet with the library protest attended by hundreds of people inside, he said, “to deny similar gatherings for religious exercise would raise grave concerns under the Constitution.”
However, according to video of the June 2 Bethesda Library protest, participants gathered outside the library. Bethesda Magazine also reported that the protest that day at the library was outdoors, not indoors. The Huffington Post reported on Thursday that the DOJ’s assertion was based upon a news report that had since been updated.
Requests to the county for comment on the DOJ letter were not answered by press time.
In its June 1 statement of support for the protests, the council noted “the hurt, anger, and fear” of community leaders and protesters “about the decades of institutional and structural racism throughout the United States once again made evident by the murder of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis.”
Starting on Monday, houses of worship in neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, can hold religious services indoors at 25% capacity or outdoors with 250 people or less, who are practicing social distancing.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C. houses of worship can only host gatherings with 10 or fewer people.
The archdiocese also includes several Maryland counties, and beginning on May 25 it allowed for public Masses to be offered in jurisdictions where local authorities had begun lifting public health restrictions. For Catholic parishes in Prince George’s County, they will be able to offer public Masses once again on Monday at 25% capacity.
Other public officials have drawn criticism for their support of mass outdoor protests while restricting religious gatherings.
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