Attorney General Bill Barr is orchestrating an 'ironic' attack on shutdown orders

Attorney General Bill Barr is orchestrating an 'ironic' attack on shutdown orders
Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

During the coronavirus pandemic, one of the anti-shutdown talking points coming from the far right is that social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders in different states amount to religious discrimination — and that governors, police departments and state health officials have no right to tell Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals that they cannot continue to hold large gatherings. Tierney Sneed, in an article this week for Talking Points Memo, explains that there is some “irony” in the way the Trump DOJ, under Attorney General William Barr, is attacking shutdowns: they’re invoking a police accountability law that, in the past, was used by Democrats to confront police brutality.

According to Sneed, “The statute in question is 34 U.S.C. Section 12601, which authorizes the attorney general to bring civil lawsuits to remedy ‘pattern or practice’ by law enforcement entities that violate civil rights.”

Sneed notes, “The law, inserted into the 1994 crime bill after the Rodney King beating, had empowered past administrations to investigate police brutality and racial profiling. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, persistently bashed those efforts, and he sought to curb the consent decrees that kept police departments’ feet to the fire. In the last three years, Justice Department action on systemic police misconduct has been sparse.”

The late Rodney King, who died in 2012, was the motorist who was brutally beaten by Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers on March 3, 1991. The acquittal of three of those officers in April 1992 was following by the L.A. Riots, the worst civil unrest Los Angeles had seen since the Watts Riots in 1965.

Sneed explains that the U.S. Department of Justice, under Barr, is using the federal accountability law to “go after lockdown ordinances he believes are unconstitutional” and “has cited it in recent filings to back churches that had gone to court to fight local and state public health orders that curtailed their services.”

“So far,” Sneed writes, “the Justice Department has only invoked the law to explain to courts why it was weighing in on lawsuits brought by private challengers. But the citations also seem in line with the more proactive approach Barr has hinted he’d like the Justice Department to take, as the law allows the department to itself launch investigations and bring lawsuits.”

Sneed quotes Sasha Samberg-Champion, a former civil rights attorney for the DOJ, as saying, “The fact that they’re citing it, they seem to be laying a marker that they could say some of these police departments are systematically discriminating against religious institutions. They at least seem to be grasping some sort of authority that would allow them to do something on their own.”

Of course, numerous churches in the U.S. — from Catholics to Mainline Protestants — have voluntarily moved their activities online and suspended in-person gatherings, stressing that they don’t want worshippers to be infected by coronavirus. But a vocal and outspoken minority of far-right fundamentalist evangelicals, many of them Trump supporters, have been railing against social distancing and vowed to keep holding in-person gatherings.

Justin Levitt, who worked in the DOJ’s civil rights division under former President Barack Obama, also finds it odd that the Trump DOJ would be using the police accountability law as a way to attack social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

“If the DOJ was getting back into the business of enforcing pattern and practice violations of law enforcement entities, that, I think, would be a good thing,” he told TPM. “This is a really weird way to do it.“

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