Churches will be allowed to open this weekend after state and federal officials urged Mayor Breea Clark to amend her phased reopening plan for the city.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter sent a letter Thursday and Friday afternoon U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma, Timothy Downing, sent a similar letter. Both officials took exception to her proclamation which allowed some businesses to open while others remained closed to the public.

Clark's order allowed gyms, restaurants, and retail to open with restrictions such as occupancy levels and CDC recommended sanitation protocols on May 1. Salons, churches and entertainment venues could not open, even with restrictions, until May 15. Churches were encouraged to hold online services and drive-thru messages outside.

Clark's received Hunter's letter Thursday on social media. In a statement she issued later that evening, she promised to consider his recommendation. By late Friday, after receiving Downing's statement, she amended the order.

“We have consistently made data driven decisions supported by medical professionals that have helped us to lead the way and set the bar for how to handle a pandemic in our state," Clark wrote in a prepared statement. "None of the decisions made to date were to hurt business or to infringe on rights; they were to protect people. And what we are doing is working. Although our restriction on in-person services for places of worship has been consistent with both our restriction on comparable mass gathering venues and identical restrictions on in-person services by the State’s earlier proclamations, I will not spend years feuding with the federal government over one week. I love this country with every ounce of my being and I love this City. I encourage our residents to wear masks and make smart decisions for their health and the health of others.”

Downing and Hunter pointed out what they believed to be flawed logic in her order and an affront to the U.S. Bill of Rights.

"While state and local public officials are owned deference in addressing the pandemic threatening the health and safety of the public, there is no pandemic exception to the Bill of Rights," Downing wrote. "Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are place 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."

Downing's letter seems to have been answer to the City of Norman's statement she made Thursday about limitations to religious gatherings during a pandemic.

"The City understands the importance of its citizen's rights to exercise their religious and non-religious beliefs freely and to assemble peaceably," the city's statement reads. "However, constitutional rights have never been absolute. Rather, they are subject to a balancing with state interest. As noted by the U.S. Supreme Court as early as 1944, 'the right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the a communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death."

A spokesman for Hunter's office said several Norman residents have filed complaints after they learned churches could not open until May 15. The Transcript has requested copies of the complaints but the open records request has not yet been filled.

Mindy Ragan Wood | 416-4420

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