Utah Sen. Mike Lee asks Trump to prod states to reopen churches or face loss of COVID-19 aid

Sen. Mike Lee is leading a call for President Donald Trump to push states and local governments to allow churches to reopen, or face restrictions on any forthcoming COVID-19 relief funding.

“Such executive action would send the nation and government leaders a clear and unequivocal message that religious liberty matters, and that no state or locality can unilaterally strip away protected constitutional rights,” Lee wrote in a letter to Trump with nine other GOP senators.

The letter complains that some governments are not allowing churches to meet or to restrict practices or gathering sizes — even if they use masks and social distancing — while many businesses are allowed to open in similar circumstances.

For example, some California churches recently sued the state for banning them from singing or chanting, while making no similar ban on chanting by protesters.

The U.S. Supreme Court also earlier turned away a request from a California church to block enforcement of state restrictions on religious services. The court ruled 5-4 that the state imposed similar restrictions for comparable secular gatherings such as concerts and movies, but some justices said churches were not being treated equally to a number of businesses.

Lee’s letter to Trump argued, “There is no ‘pandemic’ exception to constitutionally protected rights,” such as religious freedom.

He and the other senators urged Trump to “support proposals in Congress to place restrictions on any forthcoming COVID-19 relief funding to states and localities that prevent church, houses of worship and religious schools and institutions from reopening.”

Congress is debating how and whether to extend coronavirus aid.

The letter also urges Trump to “consider taking additional measures within your authority” to ensure that churches may reopen as they follow appropriate guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The letter notes that Trump in May called on mayors to allow churches to open immediately. “However, this call for action appears to have fallen on deaf ears in many of our cities and states,” it says.

The letter was also signed by Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind.; Josh Hawley, R-Mo.; Steve Daines, R-Mont.; Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.; Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss.; Roger Wicker, R-Miss.; James Lankford, R-Okla.; and Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

Lee for years has also pushed the controversial “First Amendment Defense Act,” which he says aims to protect religious freedom but critics argue could lead to discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

That bill, originally introduced in 2015 and reintroduced later, seeks to protect individuals and institutions from punitive government action for believing that marriage is between one man and one woman and for opposing sex outside of marriage.