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Oklahoma Attorney General, US Attorney Weigh in on Plan to Keep Norman Churches Closed

City of Norman residents have been in touch with Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office about their mayor’s reopening plan because it delays in-person church services from resuming until May 15.

Mayor Breea Clark’s “Healthier at Home” plan allowed gyms, restaurant dining rooms and pet groomers to reopen under restrictions May 1 if they adhere to social distancing and sanitation protocols. Hunter said in advice issued Thursday churches cannot be handled differently.

"Norman’s in a situation where the are not treating everybody in the same way, and particularly when, again as I said, you’ve got First Amendment–protected assemblies you can’t disadvantage those with respect to how you’re treating commercial entities that are reopening," Hunter said.

U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Downing sent a letter to Clark on Friday with the same guidance.

In a statement, the City of Norman said it will consider Hunter’s opinion but all mass gatherings are currently prohibited. The statement added freedom of religion is not absolute and cited a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision saying it does not include exposing the community to disease.

Hunter would not say whether he’ll intervene if Clark’s plan stays in place.

"I’m confident that the City of Norman is going to do the right thing today and through the weekend. I’ve given the advice that it was my responsibility to provide," Hunter said.

A city spokesperson asked for comment Friday directed KWGS to their statement.

"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," Clark said. "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."

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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