2020 | Coronavirus

Justice Department presses county to allow indoor religious services

As part of argument, letter wrongly states Bethesda protest was indoors at library

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Protesters gathered outside the Connie Morella Library in Bethesda on June 2. The demonstration was against police brutality and racial injustice.

File photo

This story was updated at 12:35 p.m. on June 12, 2020 to include a response from the DOJ.

The U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to Montgomery County officials on Wednesday that stated the county should allow indoor religious services if it allowed indoor protests, too.

But the premise put forward for the argument — that protesters crowded into a library for a protest – was wrong.

Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, wrote in the letter that the county allowed a protest in Bethesda where “reportedly hundreds of persons packed into a library.”

Actually, the protest was outdoors.

The Justice Department letter argues that if Bethesda is allowing a large crowd indoors for one activity, it must offer the same opportunity for groups exercising another First Amendment right, freedom of religion.

However, Montgomery County’s phase 1 reopening does not allow large crowds to gather in public places. For example, restaurants may serve customers in person only in outdoor seating areas. Montgomery County expects to advance to phase 2, with limited indoor restaurant service, next week.

On June 2, a protest was organized outside the Connie Morella Library in Bethesda. The protest started outdoors at the library and continued with a march in the streets around downtown Bethesda.

Protesters did not enter the library during their peaceful demonstration against police brutality and racial injustice. The death in Minneapolis of George Floyd has sparked protests nationwide. Floyd, who was black, died after he was pinned to the group and his breathing was cut off by a white police officer who pressed his knee against Floyd’s throat for nearly nine minutes.

The officer has been charged with murder. Three other officers are facing charges. All four were fired.

The DOJ letter — sent Thursday to County Executive Marc Elrich and the County Council — states that all First Amendment rights should be upheld for religious exercise in addition to the rights for speech and to peaceably assemble for protests.

“Government may not discriminate against religious gatherings compared to other nonreligious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest, absent compelling reasons,” Dreiband wrote.

Elrich did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Bethesda Beat on Thursday afternoon. It was not clear what prompted the DOJ to weigh in on Montgomery County’s reopening efforts. A Department of Justice spokesman would not be quoted on the record for this story.

A WJLA reporter first reported on the letter in a post on Twitter on Thursday afternoon.

Protestors gathered outside of the Connie Morella Library in Bethesda on June 2.

Montgomery County currently allows outdoor “drive-in” religious services. People must remain in their cars which must be distanced.

Under the second phase of reopening, the county plans to allow limited indoor and outdoor services at places of worship. One person or family per 200 square feet will be allowed in indoor religious spaces.

Some council members have spoken up in recent meetings, calling for more restrictions to be lifted for religious services.

Riemer told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that he agrees that churches should be allowed to have the same gathering ability as other entities.

He said he asked council attorneys about the letter and the constitutionality of the current reopening phase.

“The response was that it’s not discriminatory because we don’t treat churches differently from similar uses or similar needs,” he said. “If a church wanted to have a restaurant, then they would be subject to the restaurant rules. It’s sort of unsatisfactory. … You can have 50 people in an orchard, but you can’t have 50 people at a religious service [outdoors]. It just doesn’t seem right.”

He said he agreed with Dreiband that if the county encourages outdoor gatherings for political protests, then it needs to do the same for religious services.

Council Member Nancy Navarro said Thursday afternoon that the council will discuss the letter with Elrich.

“It is something that we consider to be important, for sure,” she said. “I know this is also something that a lot of jurisdictions are grappling with in terms of protests. … We’re all trying to balance everything.”

Dreiband wrote in the letter that the DOJ was not seeking to “dictate” how the county determines what degree of activity and personal interaction should be allowed.

“But in identifying the conditions under which gatherings for protest may proceed in Montgomery County, the Council should ensure that it imposes no more onerous conditions on gatherings for religious exercises than it does on gatherings for other purposes,” he wrote.

In a Montgomery County news release about the second phase sent Thursday afternoon, Elrich wrote that the county doesn’t know when its second phase would begin, but he is “hopeful that it will be in about one week.”

He said earlier in the week that he expected phase 2 to happen sometime between Monday, when Prince George’s County is moving to its next phase, and Friday, when Washington, D.C., was doing the same.

Dr. Travis Gayles, the county’s health officer, said in a media briefing on Wednesday that the county would consider 14 days of data before deciding whether the county could reopen under phase 2.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.