CNA Staff, Jun 12, 2020 / 10:00 am
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.