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McConnell blasts Bowser for restricting church services but allowing protests

Argues D.C. mayor, other Democrats are selectively allowing First Amendment activities

Fr. Joseph Rahal attended a vigil on 16th Street NW, to honor George Floyd on Friday.
Fr. Joseph Rahal attended a vigil on 16th Street NW, to honor George Floyd on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday went on the attack against Democrats using a familiar and comfortable ground for him, the First Amendment.

“I have no criticism for the millions of Americans who peacefully demonstrated in recent days. Their cause is beyond righteous,” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor. “It is the inconsistency from leaders that has been baffling,” he added, singling out Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser for what he says is selectively allowing racial justice protests but not church services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

McConnell argued that restrictions on religious ceremonies are not consistent with allowing rallies and protests against police brutality in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

“Here in the District of Columbia, the mayor celebrates massive street protests. She actually joins them herself, but on her command, churches and houses of worship remain shut,” he said. “I believe even the largest church buildings in the District are still subject to the 10-person limit for the things the mayor deems inessential.”

McConnell also cited the stay-at-home orders of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, saying freedom of speech, assembly and religion “have the same constitutional pedigree,” and thus should be treated the same.

“But apparently, while protests are still permissible, prayer is still too dangerous,” the majority leader said.

McConnell has long been active in First Amendment debates. One of the more prominent ones was his lawsuit to block the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that limited political party contributions to candidates, arguing it was an infringement on freedom of speech and the First Amendment.

He has also spoken up recently about restrictions on religious gatherings during the pandemic, criticizing Greg Fischer, the mayor of his home city of Louisville, Kentucky, for a coronavirus-related ban on drive-in church services.

Justin Walker, a U.S. district judge in Kentucky and a McConnell protégé now awaiting Senate confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, issued an order allowing the drive-in church services in time for Easter Sunday this year.

Back on the floor Tuesday, McConnell trained his critiques on Democrats who have also raised the ire of President Donald Trump during the recent protests, particularly Bowser, who has criticized the president directly and had city workers paint the words “Black Lives Matter” on at street leading to the White House.

“It is now impossible to avoid the conclusion that local and state leaders are using their powers to encourage constitutionally protected conduct which they personally appreciate, while continuing to ban constitutionally protected conduct which they personally feel is less important,” McConnell said.

McConnell emphasized that his criticism was not of the peaceful protesters engaging in First Amendment activities. His floor remarks came ahead of a Senate Republican lunch in which South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only African American member of McConnell’s conference, planned to speak about a police overhaul proposal.

“Notwithstanding the far-left calls to disband the police altogether, I believe most Americans are ready to consider how the memories of black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor can move us to continue combating residual racism,” McConnell said, referring also to the death of Taylor at the hands of Louisville area police.

The battles between Bowser and elected Republicans led by Trump about the protests have also given a renewed focus to supporters of statehood for the District.

“For 219 years this city has not been equal to the states,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton recently told CQ Roll Call. “So whatever else happens with respect to the virus and police reform, this is even more important history because it goes to the way in which our republic is formed.”

On Tuesday, virtually the same time McConnell was blasting Bowser, Norton and Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., sent out a release announcing additional co-sponsors for their D.C. statehood bill, Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.

“Last week, the nation watched as federal agents and the U.S. military were deployed against Americans practicing their constitutional rights to peacefully protest in the District of Columbia. President Trump didn’t need approval to carry this action out because the District of Columbia is not a state — and therein lies the problem we need to fix. What the President did is contrary to who we are as Americans and what we stand for as a nation, and the issue of statehood is something both Democrats and Republicans can no longer ignore,” Carper said.

Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.

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