WASHINGTON (BP) – A United States senator has called for a federal civil rights investigation of states that have continued during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to place strict limitations on religious gatherings while permitting massive protests of the police killing of George Floyd.
Southern Baptist leaders, meanwhile, encouraged public officials to treat worship services the same as similar events while they loosen restrictions resulting from the pandemic.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wrote Attorney General William Barr on June 9 to request the investigation, saying state authorities “have violated the free speech and free exercise rights of religious Americans by treating religious gatherings and speech differently than the speech and mass gatherings of protests.”
The viral video of Floyd’s death while pinned under the knee of Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin prompted protests by thousands of Americans in some large cities and hundreds in some smaller ones, often without the precautions called for by public officials to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, authorities in some states and cities maintained stringent caps on worship attendance for churches and other religious groups.
In the wake of Floyd’s death, Southern Baptist leaders have spoken out for justice while urging government officials to treat religious groups with equity. On May 30, all SBC officers, entity heads and state convention executive directors signed a statement that grieved Floyd’s death and called for the end of “racial inequity in the distribution of justice in our country.”
In his letter, Hawley said millions of Americans “are rightly angry about the death of George Floyd, and they should be able to protest peacefully. At the same time, state officials must not use their support for this protest to infringe the free exercise and free speech rights of religious Americans. Yet that is happening across the nation.”
State authorities “cannot block religious speech while allowing protests simply because the states think the protest speech is more valuable,” Hawley wrote.
Religious freedom organizations have expressed concerns or worked to loosen restrictive policies in such states as California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina and Tennessee.