U.S. Attorney’s Office urges Norman mayor to open places of worship


NORMAN, Okla. (KFOR) – After the Oklahoma Attorney General demanded that city leaders in Norman change the ‘Healthier at Home’ plan, officials with the United States Attorney’s Office are speaking out.

Norman city leaders have been carefully watching the state’s response to COVID-19, and have implemented strict ‘shelter-in-place’ policies in the past.

Recently, Norman Mayor Breea Clark announced a ‘Healthier at Home’ plan to reopen Norman in three phases, beginning May 1.

The plan largely follows Gov. Stitt’s reopening plan, but it is on a delayed timeline.

Beginning May 1, the following areas opened:

  • Groups of 10 or less
  • Gyms open with restrictions
  • Non-essential retail open with restrictions
  • Dining areas open with restriction, by reservation
  • Pet grooming open by appointment
  • Music lessons, physical training, open one-on-one
  • Golf courses, tennis courts, baseball, softball, soccer fields open

If cases trend downward, the following areas will open by May 15:

  • Places of worship open
  • Hair salons, barbers, nail salons, tanning facilities open by appointment only
  • Organized youth sports begin practicing
  • Playgrounds and basketball courts open

Beginning May 29, the following areas will open:

  • Groups of 25 or less
  • Entertainment venues, movie theaters, sporting venues open with restrictions
  • Community pools open with restrictions
  • Massage and tattoo parlors open with restrictions
  • Summer camps open with restrictions
  • Bars open with restrictions
  • Updated guidelines for businesses released.

Beginning June 12, the following areas will open:

  • Groups of 50 or less
  • Hospital and senior living facility visits resume
  • Organized youth sports begin games
  • Updated guidelines for individuals and businesses released.

However, not everyone is a fan of the delayed opening plan.

On Thursday, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter called for Clark to amend her ‘Healthier at Home’ plan to include places of worship in phase one.

Officials say state and federal law limits the mayor’s authority to restrict the exercise of religion and for peaceable assembly.

“I want to remind Mayor Clark that there are important limits on local authority to restrict activity protected by state and federal law, especially any attempt to impose a mandatory block of religious gatherings or a closure of houses of worship,” Attorney General Hunter said. “With updated state guidelines, religious services can go on as scheduled this weekend unless they are postponed or rescheduled by the religious institution itself. Leadership at these places should adhere to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, use good judgment and common sense when making the determination on reopening. Those planning to attend services should do the same. But the city cannot discriminate against religious groups by shuttering churches while allowing other establishments—such as restaurants, gyms, retail stores, hair salons and massage and tattoo parlors—that pose the same or greater risk to open.

If individuals feel ill or they have a credible belief that they may have been in contact with a person who has contracted COVID-19, they should stay home. If individuals need more tips or advice on how to practice proper social distancing or how they can protect themselves, listen to medical experts and utilize the resources from the CDC.”


City leaders in Norman say their proactive steps during the pandemic have resulted in a true downward trend of positive cases within the city limits.

“Our first priority has been and continues to be, the health and safety of our residents. We have worked to make the best possible decisions we can, based on the best possible information available at the time. From the beginning, we have made every effort to coordinate our COVID-19
response with the State and other local officials. And, while we have often not received advice or input from the State, we welcome Mr. Hunter’s opinion on our current plan. We will take it into consideration as we continue to ensure we are in compliance with state and federal laws and acting in the best interest of our residents.”

Mayor Breea Clark

City officials say they understand the importance of its citizens’ rights to exercise their religious beliefs freely and to assemble peacefully. However, they say constitutional rights have never been absolute but are subject to a balancing with state interest.

In a news release, city leaders quoted a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1944, stating, “[t]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community… to a communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”

On Friday, U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Downing sent a letter to Mayor Clark, urging her to consider amending the proclamation to include the opening of places of worship.

“While state and local public officials are owed deference in addressing the pandemic threatening the health and safety of the public, there is no pandemic exception to the Bill of Rights. Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. Government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity. For example, if a government allows professional services, personal care providers, restaurants, retail stores, and other comparable places of assembly to open, as appears to be the case with Proclamation 2020-07, it may not order
houses of worship to remain closed or otherwise impede religious gatherings. Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.

Where a state or local government does not act evenhandedly, it must have a compelling
reason to impose restrictions on places of worship and must ensure that those restrictions are
narrowly tailored to advance a compelling state interest. Places of worship should be trusted to
honor social distancing and sanitation guidelines to the same extent as secular institutions.

Letter from U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Downing

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