By: Mike Hurst
The strength of a nation depends largely upon its foundation and the will of its people to protect its most sacred values. Our forefathers established our great nation upon a stable footing by enshrining many of our most sacred values into the Constitution as unalienable rights. It is up to us, “we the people,” to tenaciously and steadfastly defend these constitutional liberties in order to ensure that America remains strong.
As we are experiencing today with the COVID-19 pandemic and have experienced in our nation’s past, it is during times of crisis that some of our most precious rights come under attack. In the 1790s, legislation was passed prohibiting criticism of the President, Congress and the federal government. During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended rights of individuals to challenge in court their imprisonment by the government. And during World War I, countless dissenters were prosecuted for opposing the war and the draft. In every one of these instances, such actions were later held by the courts to be unconstitutional.
A few weeks ago, Attorney General William Barr instructed U.S. Attorneys around the country to be on the lookout for state and local directives “that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.” As Attorney General Barr stated: “If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 42 states issued “stay-at-home” orders, limiting the ability of individuals to travel and congregate for essential purposes only. Some local governments issued even more restrictive measures. While such temporary restrictions can help stem the spread of COVID-19 and prevent our medical facilities from becoming overwhelmed, such orders severely restrict our constitutional rights to freely assemble and petition our governments, and can be arbitrarily enforced, overly broad, or excessively burdensome. Some recent, extreme examples include: a Colorado father arrested for playing catch with his daughter in a park; a woman threatened with prosecution for organizing a “Freedom Rally” in San Diego; and a New Jersey man arrested for reading a book while sitting on a lifeguard stand at a beach.
There have also been concerning local city ordinances from New York to Kentucky to Mississippi singling out and targeting religious practices for unequal treatment by prohibiting Christians from attending “drive-in” services at their local churches. Incredibly, just a few weeks ago in Greenville, police officers wrote $500 tickets to churchgoers sitting in their cars with their windows up! The church sued the City of Greenville, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, U.S. Attorney Chad Lamar in Oxford, and I filed a statement supporting the church, stating: “[t]here is no pandemic exception . . . to the fundamental liberties the Constitution safeguards.” As Attorney General Barr stated when this was filed: “The United States Department of Justice will continue to ensure that religious freedom remains protected if any state or local government, in their response to COVID-19, singles out, targets, or discriminates against any house of worship for special restrictions.” Fortunately, in that case, the mayor finally backed down, absolving churchgoers from having to pay the fines and rescinding his unconstitutional ordinance.
It is not just our First Amendment rights that are under attack. Our Second Amendment rights are also being targeted as well. Just last week, the mayor of the city of Jackson signed an executive order attempting to temporarily suspend state law and constitutional rights governing the open carrying of firearms. Fortunately, brave Mississippians filed a lawsuit to stop this, I spoke out against it, and the mayor backed down just a few days later, letting his order expire. But this blatant attempt by a local politician to put politics above people and personal ambition before fundamental liberties is exactly what we as Americans must stand up and defend against.
As Attorney General Barr said last week, “The Bill of Rights doesn’t go away during a crisis like this. . . We are on the lookout for restrictions that are too widespread, too generalized, and are unduly discriminatory towards liberties such as religious liberty or speech . . . and in the appropriate case, we will consider taking action.”
As U.S. Attorney, I serve as the chief federal law enforcement officer for over half of our state. I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and I take that duty very seriously. Our office will continue to monitor these situations as they develop, and the public must be vigilant in reporting such abuses to us. We all must never hesitate to stand up against government overreach and take action to preserve for our constitutional liberties and civil rights that our forefathers died for. The strength and health of our nation literally depends upon this.
Mike Hurst, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District