Donald Trump can appear next to top health officials and epidemiologists and declare that states’ governors should be the primary decision-makers on the timing and methods for reopening local businesses all that he wants.
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Trump’s Justice Department, however, seems to be following a different agenda than what the responsibility-evading president is willing to publicly state.
After a cabal of right-wing organizations and their billionaire donors have launched a barrage of legal challenges to state and municipal regulations designed to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus saying that the restrictions on personal freedoms violate their constitutional rights, The New York Times is reporting that the Justice Department — urged on by a memo issued by arch-conservative Attorney General William Barr — is working closely with these groups to “monitor state and local policies ‘and, if necessary, take action to correct’ those that ‘could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.’”
According to the newspaper:
“Justice Department officials have spoken on conference calls with leaders of conservative groups, who have flagged individual cases as worthy of the department’s review. Some cabinet officials have signaled that they back the effort by participating in private calls with conservative allies, according to multiple people involved with the calls.”
In his memo outlining the Justice Department’s concerns over “balancing public safety with the preservation of civil rights,” Attorney General Barr stated:
“We do not want to unduly interfere with the important efforts of state and local officials to protect the public. But the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis.”
Although at the present moment, the Justice Department has only put its muscle behind one court challenge from a Baptist church in Greenville, Mississippi, the memo raises the specter that the Trump administration could side in court with right-wing groups agitating against duly- elected state and local leaders who have put policies in place that medical experts universally say are the only way to prevent an upwardly-spiraling trend of contagion from a pandemic that has already led to more than 53,000 deaths.
Ironically, the Republican Party that Trump now leads has traditionally been a staunch supporter of states’ rights, particularly when it came to enacting restrictions on voter registration, education policies, and other areas where discriminatory factors have called for federal intervention.
Now that the coronavirus crisis has led state officials to put in place rules and restrictions that are affecting the overall economy, and subsequently interfering with the reelection chances of Donald Trump, the party seems willing to completely reverse course on issues of federalism and states’ rights.
“’It would not be the first time that the federal government has tried to undercut states’ rights by pushing its own agenda,’ said Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported some challenges to coronavirus restrictions but is concerned that the federal government could take its own action against state and local rules,” The New York Times writes.
The biggest challenges to state and local restrictions on large gatherings of people to prevent the spread of the viral disease have been coming from business leaders and religious organizations that both stand to lose significant revenue from prolonged social isolation policies.
“At the end of this month, we’ll be at 45 days since the president first issued his guidelines. God only kept Moses on the mountain for 40 days,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Christian policy group, the Family Research Council. “They’re ready to come down.”
The fact that the groups protecting the local restrictions are comprised primarily of Donald Trump’s political allies — in an election year, no less — makes even those who typically support constitutional liberties on a non-partisan basis, like the ACLU, worried about the politicization of the process of determining whether public health concerns outweigh individual liberties in the current situation.
“If D.O.J. challenges legitimate state orders on the Covid pandemic, Attorney General Barr will never be able to say that he believes in states’ rights with a straight face,” the ACLU’s Romero said, indicating that his organization may oppose any Justice Department efforts to reverse decisions made by state ansd local officials.
While the Constitution guarantees every American the right to practice their religion as they see fit, it also sets a strict dividing line between the secular government and the religious world.
With Trump’s Justice Department under Attorney General Barr seemingly not only advocating on behalf of religious institutions right to assemble in large numbers over the rights of Americans to stay safe from a deadly virus but also actively consulting with Christian leaders and other conservative allies about strategy, it’s likely that the constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state is being violated in ways it never has been before.
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