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Washington Examiner Op-Ed: How the Justice Department is standing up for civil rights amid coronavirus pandemic

As our country faces the challenge of COVID-19, our founding ideals remain critically important.

At Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln explained that the United States is a “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Americans in Lincoln’s time were engaged in a murderous civil war.

Today, we are battling a life-threatening virus, but the same principles that guided Lincoln must guide us now, especially when it comes to protecting our civil rights. The Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, which I lead, is committed to this mission, and this means that we are dedicated to protecting those who are targeted for their disability, religion, race, or other protected trait.

Americans are engaged in the fight against the pandemic. Courageous healthcare professionals, public officials, corporations, volunteers, houses of worship, and others are working tirelessly to battle the pandemic, save lives, and preserve health.

The Justice Department’s pandemic-related work includes enforcing disability-rights laws, protecting religious liberty, and prosecuting hate crimes.

We are dedicated to the equal dignity of individuals with disabilities and will take action against anyone who violates federal law in dispensing healthcare in response to COVID-19. The Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws prohibit rationing healthcare away from individuals because of their mental or physical disabilities. Federal law also protects the right of individuals with disabilities to have access to healthcare on the same basis as nondisabled people.

To that end, the department has resolved over 50 allegations of disability discrimination in healthcare, including a recent agreement with a medical center to improve access for mobility-impaired individuals and the ability of deaf patients and family members to communicate effectively with staff.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has changed the way many Americans must practice their faith. Governments have issued social distancing guidelines, and many states and cities have made limits on gatherings mandatory. Many places of worship responded by making services available online.

There is no pandemic exception for religious freedom protections. Although it is legal for the government to protect health and safety by limiting assemblies, including religious assemblies, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that it does not apply to similar nonreligious activity.

For example, if a government orders that houses of worship close or limit their congregation size, those limits must also apply to movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and all other comparable places of assembly. The Department of Justice will continue to enforce federal law to protect religious freedom if states or localities single out or target houses of worship for special restrictions in their response to COVID-19.

Through our Place to Worship Initiative, the Justice Department enforces federal law that requires local governments to treat religious assemblies as well as nonreligious assemblies in their zoning laws.

In the past year, we helped a church in New York win an order allowing it to locate in a commercial district where theaters, fraternal organizations, and other assemblies were permitted. We also filed cases and friend-of-the-court briefs involving synagogues, a Buddhist retreat center, a Hindu temple, an Islamic association, and various Christian denominations.

Finally, the coronavirus originated in China, and some people have targeted Asian Americans and Asians simply because of their ethnicity. This conduct has no place in America. As President Trump has explained, COVID-19 “is not their fault in any way, shape, or form.”

The Justice Department will prosecute hate crimes and violations of anti-discrimination laws against Asian Americans, Asians, and others to the fullest extent of the law. Attorney General William Barr and I have instructed department prosecutors that we will not tolerate hate-motivated acts of violence.

For example, we recently brought hate crimes charges concerning the murder of members of the Hispanic community at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and the killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We prosecuted and obtained a conviction and the ultimate penalty against the man who senselessly murdered African American worshipers at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Together, we will defeat COVID-19. Under the leadership of President Trump and Attorney General Barr, the Department of Justice will continue to fight for the civil rights of all Americans. We will protect the equal dignity of every person in our country, the freedom to exercise religion, and the safety and security of all, no matter their disability status, religion, race, or other protected characteristic. And, when the mighty scourge of this virus passes from the scene, we will have preserved what Lincoln called “the last, best hope of earth.”

Updated January 20, 2021

Civil Rights