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Michigan U.S. Attorney monitoring local and state COVID-19 orders says work is not political

close up of cross inlay on front of church
Katie Raymond
Michigan Radio
In a memo issued Monday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said U.S. attorneys will review local and state rules affecting religious freedoms and the national economy during the pandemic.

United States Attorney General William Barr issued a memo on Monday instructing U.S. attorneys to watch for state and local orders tied to the COVID-19 pandemic that could be violating the constitutional rights of citizens. Barr named the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, as one of two people to oversee that process. He spoke to Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou.

Schneider on protecting Americans’ health and freedoms

"We all need to protect ourselves from the coronavirus. That's very important. Governors across the country have issued stay at home orders. And there are plenty of good reasons for this. But I understand, as the attorney general does, that those orders must be reasonable and temporary, because as important as it is that we stay safe, it's also important to know that we do not abandon all of our freedoms even in the time of an emergency or in a pandemic."

Preserving freedom to worship during a pandemic

"As important as it is that we stay safe, it's also important to know that we do not abandon all of our freedoms even in the time of an emergency or in a pandemic." - U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider

"The Justice Department has intervened in a case in Mississippi. In that case, there was a church that was holding up a parking lot worship service. You would pull up to the church parking lot, you would stay inside your car, your windows would be rolled up, and then the pastor would broadcast from the church as well.

"On Sunday, the city dispatched eight uniformed police officers to the church and went from car to car, knocking on the windows and fining people $500.

"However, on that same day, if you got in that car and you drove across town, you could roll down your window and you could go to a commercial establishment and buy a burger. So, it appears in this case that churches or religion was singled out."

Michigan's rules not a specific focus

When asked if there are orders in Michigan that will be getting immediate attention, Schneider didn't name any in particular.

"This review is not just about Michigan and there have been orders in almost every state," he said. "Of course, we'll look at Michigan, but that's only one part of the viewpoint. I mean, Gov. Whitmer is one of 50 governors in this union, so we'll be looking at everything."

Schneider says the work is not political

This is an election year. Michigan is a key state in the presidential picture. Governor Whitmer and President Trump have argued publicly during the pandemic. But Schneider says there's no merit to the idea that this new effort by the Justice Department could be motivated by political concerns more than legal ones.

"There is nothing that I do in my job that is based on politics because that's against my oath. And if you look at the one case where the Justice Department has intervened so far, that was in Mississippi, as far as I know, that's a pretty Republican state. So it really is irrelevant to me. It doesn't matter to me where these orders are coming from or who they're coming from. Our job and our duty is to preserve and protect the constitution and the political makeup of the person passing the order is really irrelevant."

Editor's notes: Answers here have been edited for length. You can listen to the full interview at the top of this page. You can read Attorney General William Barr's full memo below.

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Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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