Statement from Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband and Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael Sherwin on Legal Victory Protecting Religious Worship in the Nation’s Capital

Judge enjoins District of Columbia from impeding worship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church

Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin for the District of Columbia issued the following statements:

“Yesterday, in the heart of our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., a federal district court ruled that the fundamental right of all Americans to worship endures during our COVID-19 response,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division.  “Last night’s decision is a victory for religious liberty and the rule of law. In an overwhelming vote, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in order to guarantee our nation’s first freedom is always upheld. The Department of Justice is grateful the court ruled preliminarily with this in mind and is grateful that members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church will be able to worship together on Sunday.”

“I am gratified that the court upheld the right of worshipers in the District of Columbia to exercise their First Freedom of religious exercise, in a safe manner,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin for the District of Columbia.

Background

On Oct. 2, 2020, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in federal district court in Washington D.C., arguing that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) — a 1993 federal law signed by President Clinton — and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made the District of Columbia’s restrictions on Capitol Hill Baptist church illegal.

On Oct. 9, 2020, the federal court — after hearing oral argument and “review[ing] the statement of interest submitted by the United States” — granted a preliminary injunction motion.  In issuing its injunction, the court held that Capitol Hill Baptist “Church has shown that it is likely to succeed in proving that the District’s actions impose a substantial burden on its exercise of religion.  For its part, the District has not shown that it is likely to prove a compelling interest in prohibiting the Church from holding outdoor worship services with appropriate precautions, or that its restrictions are the least restrictive means available to achieve its public health objectives.”

The Justice Department’s statement of interest was filed in Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser, a case challenging the District of Columbia’s refusal to allow outdoor worship because of the city’s COVID-19 restrictions. The suit challenges the permit denial under the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The suit alleges that while places of worship are limited to 100 people at outdoor worship services, these limits do not apply to, among other things, outdoor protests and rallies accommodating thousands.

The statement of interest is part of Attorney General William P. Barr’s initiative, announced April 27, directing Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Eric Dreiband, and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Matthew Schneider, to review governmental policies around the country to ensure that civil liberties are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Capitol Hill Baptist Church is a church of more than 850 members with a strong religious conviction that it should meet in person as a complete body for worship each Sunday. It therefore sought a permit to hold worship outdoors in excess of the 100-person limit, which the city denied.

The United States’ statement of interest explained that there is no constitutional or statutory basis for allowing protests and rallies attended by thousands of people, while at the same time silencing religious worship. The brief also explained that the District of Columbia bears a high burden of proof to justify its actions under the First Amendment and RFRA because its actions impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise, as the church has shown here.

Though seeking to prohibit the Church’s socially-distanced outdoor worship, the District of Columbia nonetheless denied that the protests it had encouraged this past summer caused infection.  The Court observed:  “In fact, the District’s brief explains that the protests did not trigger any spike in COVID-19 ‘outbreaks,’ undermining the notion that large gatherings are always exceptionally dangerous.”

On Sept. 22, 2020, the Justice Department marked the 20th Anniversary of another federal law enacted to protect religious liberty, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—a law enforced by the department’s Civil Rights Division, by releasing a comprehensive report detailing how RLUIPA has helped preserve the religious liberty rights of thousands of individuals and institutions.  https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/department-justice-marks-20th-anniversary-religious-land-use-and-institutionalized-persons   

In July 2018, the Department of Justice announced the formation of the Religious Liberty Task Force. The Task Force brings together department components to coordinate their work on religious liberty litigation and policy, and to implement the Attorney General’s 2017 Religious Liberty Guidance.

More information about the Department of Justice’s efforts to protect religious exercise, including its Place to Worship Initiative is available at www.justice.gov/crt/placetoworship.

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    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) operates the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (the Early Detection Program) to provide cancer screening and diagnostic services to people who are low-income and uninsured or underinsured. For those screened under the program who require treatment, the Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention and Treatment Act of 2000 (the Treatment Act) allows states to extend Medicaid eligibility to individuals not otherwise eligible for Medicaid. GAO analysis of CDC data show that the Early Detection Program screened 296,225 people in 2018, a decrease from 550,390 in 2011 (about 46 percent). The largest decrease occurred from 2013 to 2014 (see figure). According to a CDC-funded study, the number of people eligible for the Early Detection Program decreased from 2011 through 2017, by about 48 percent for breast cancer and about 49 percent for cervical cancer. CDC officials attributed these declines in screening and eligibility, in part, to improved access to screening under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). For example, PPACA required health plans to cover certain women's preventive health care with no cost sharing. Number of People Screened by CDC's Early Detection Program, 2011-2018 GAO analysis of Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' (CMS) data found that, in 2019, 43,549 people were enrolled in Medicaid under the Treatment Act to receive treatment for breast or cervical cancer, a decrease from 50,219 in 2016 (13.3 percent). Thirty-seven states experienced a decrease in Medicaid enrollment under the Treatment Act during this time period, 13 states experienced an increase, and one state had no change. CMS officials noted that Medicaid expansion to adults with incomes at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level under PPACA (the new adult group) is a key factor that contributed to these enrollment trends. CMS officials said that, in Medicaid expansion states, there were some people who previously would have enrolled in Medicaid based on eligibility under the Treatment Act who instead became eligible for Medicaid in the new adult group. The CMS data show that total enrollment under the Treatment Act in Medicaid expansion states decreased by 25.6 percent from 2016 to 2019. In contrast, total enrollment under the Treatment Act in non-expansion states increased by about 1 percent during this time period. According to the CDC, tens of thousands of people die each year from breast or cervical cancer. Early screening and detection, followed by prompt treatment, can improve outcomes and, ultimately, save lives. Federal programs, like CDC's Early Detection Program, are intended to improve access to these services. GAO was asked to examine the implementation of the Early Detection Program and the states' use of Medicaid under the Treatment Act. This report provides information on the number of people who were 1) screened through the Early Detection Program and 2) enrolled in Medicaid under the Treatment Act. GAO analyzed CDC data on the number of people screened by the Early Detection Program from calendar years 2011 through 2018—the most recent available. GAO also analyzed CMS Medicaid enrollment data from 2016 through 2019—the most recent available. Additionally, GAO reviewed a 2020 study funded by CDC that examines the number of people eligible for the Early Detection Program from 2011 through 2017. Finally, GAO interviewed CDC and CMS officials and reviewed relevant CDC and CMS documents. For more information, contact John E. Dicken, (202) 512-7114, dickenj@gao.gov.
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  • Residents of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina Indicted for Promoting Tax Fraud Scheme
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    A federal grand jury in Orlando, Florida, returned an indictment April 21, 2021, charging residents of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina with promoting a tax fraud scheme.
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  • Low-Income Workers: Millions of Full-Time Workers in the Private Sector Rely on Federal Health Care and Food Assistance Programs
    In U.S GAO News
    The 12 million wage-earning adults (ages 19 to 64) enrolled in Medicaid—a joint federal-state program that finances health care for low-income individuals—and the 9 million wage-earning adults in households receiving food assistance from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) shared a range of common labor characteristics. For example, approximately 70 percent of adult wage earners in both programs worked full-time hours (i.e., 35 hours or more) on a weekly basis and about one-half of them worked full-time hours annually (see figure). In addition, 90 percent of wage-earning adults participating in each program worked in the private sector (compared to 81 percent of nonparticipants) and 72 percent worked in one of five industries, according to GAO’s analysis of program participation data included in the Census Bureau’s 2019 Current Population Survey. When compared to adult wage earners not participating in the programs, wage-earning adult Medicaid enrollees and SNAP recipients in the private sector were more likely to work in the leisure and hospitality industry and in food service and food preparation occupations. Estimated Percentage of Wage-Earning Adult Medicaid Enrollees and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Recipients Working at Least 35 Hours per Week, by Number of Weeks Worked in 2018 GAO’s analysis of February 2020 program data from 15 agencies—six Medicaid agencies and nine SNAP agencies—across 11 states shows that a majority of working adult Medicaid enrollees and SNAP recipients in these states worked for private sector employers. GAO’s analysis also shows that the percentage of working adult Medicaid enrollees and SNAP recipients working for any one employer did not exceed 4 percent in any state that provided data. Most working adults in the programs worked for private sector employers concentrated in certain industries, including restaurants, department stores, and grocery stores. Smaller percentages of working adults in each program in these states worked outside the private sector. For example, less than 10 percent worked for public sector employers, such as state governments, the U.S. Postal Service, or public universities; others worked for nonprofit organizations, such as charities, hospitals, and health care networks, or were self-employed. In October 2020, GAO issued a report entitled Federal Social Safety Net Programs Millions of Full-Time Workers Rely on Federal Health Care and Food Assistance Programs (GAO-20-45.) This testimony summarizes the findings of that report, which examined (1) what is known about the labor characteristics of wage-earning adult Medicaid enrollees and SNAP recipients, and (2) what is known about where wage-earning adult Medicaid enrollees and SNAP recipients work. To answer these questions, GAO analyzed recent Census Bureau data on the labor characteristics of working adults in the two programs. GAO also analyzed recent (Feb. 2020) non-generalizable data on the employers of working adult Medicaid enrollees and SNAP recipients obtained from 15 state agencies across 11 states. GAO selected state agencies that (1) collected, verified, and updated the names of Medicaid enrollees’ and SNAP recipients’ employers; and (2) could extract reliable data. GAO made no recommendations. For more information, contact Cindy S. Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.  
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    The Department of Justice announced today that it will require Zen-Noh Grain Corp. (ZGC) to divest nine grain elevators in nine geographic areas located in five states along the Mississippi River and its tributaries in order to proceed with its proposed $300 million acquisition of 35 operating and 13 idled grain elevators from Bunge North America Inc. 
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  • Priority Open Recommendations: Department of Commerce
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified 20 priority recommendations for the Department of Commerce. Since then, Commerce has implemented nine of those recommendations by, among other things, improving the risk management of the decennial census by ensuring identified risks had the required mitigation and contingency plans, and by establishing a process for conducting an organization-wide cybersecurity risk assessment. Commerce also had one priority recommendation related to the decennial census that we closed as not implemented. Additionally, Commerce had two priority recommendations that will remain open for the 2030 Census, but are no longer a priority in 2021 because action on these recommendations does not need to occur until later in the 10-year decennial cycle. In June 2021, GAO identified three additional priority recommendations for Commerce, bringing the total number to 11. These recommendations involve the following areas: Managing climate change risks International trade  Information technology management and workforce planning Ensuring the cybersecurity of the nation  Decennial Census  Conflict minerals rule Full implementations of these open recommendations could significantly improve Commerce’s operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or sagerm@gao.gov.
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  • Navy Shipyards: Actions Needed to Address the Main Factors Causing Maintenance Delays for Aircraft Carriers and Submarines
    In U.S GAO News
    The Navy's four shipyards completed 38 of 51 (75 percent) maintenance periods late for aircraft carriers and submarines with planned completion dates in fiscal years 2015 through 2019, for a combined total of 7,424 days of maintenance delay. For each maintenance period completed late, the shipyards averaged 113 days late for aircraft carriers and 225 days late for submarines. Maintenance Delays at Navy Shipyards for Fiscal Years 2015 through 2019 Unplanned work and workforce factors—such as shipyard workforce performance and capacity (having enough people to perform the work)—were the main factors GAO identified as causing maintenance delays for aircraft carriers and submarines. The Navy frequently cited both factors as contributing to the same days of maintenance delay. Unplanned work—work identified after finalizing maintenance plans—contributed to more than 4,100 days of maintenance delays. Unplanned work also contributed to the Navy's 36 percent underestimation of the personnel resources necessary to perform maintenance. The workforce factor contributed to more than 4,000 days of maintenance delay on aircraft carriers and submarines during fiscal years 2015 through 2019. The Navy has taken steps but has not fully addressed the unplanned work and workforce factors causing the most maintenance delays. First, the Navy updated planning documents to improve estimates and plans to annually update these data, but knowing whether changes improve results may take several years. Second, the Navy has consistently relied on high levels of overtime to carry out planned work. GAO's analysis found that high overtime among certain production shops, such as painting or welding, averaged from 25 to 32 percent for fiscal years 2015 through 2019, with peak overtime as high as 45 percent. Furthermore, shipyard officials told us that production shops at all four shipyards are working beyond their capacity. Overtime at such rates has been noted as resulting in diminished productivity. Third, the Navy initiated the Shipyard Performance to Plan initiative in the fall of 2018 to address the unplanned work and workforce factors, but it has not yet developed 13 of 25 planned metrics that could improve the Navy's understanding of the causes of maintenance delays. In addition, the Shipyard Performance to Plan initiative does not include goals, milestones, and a monitoring process along with fully developed metrics to address unplanned work and workforce weaknesses. Without fully developing metrics and implementing goals, action plans, milestones, and a monitoring process, the shipyards are not likely to address unplanned work and workforce weaknesses and the Navy is likely to continue facing maintenance delays and reduced time for training and operations with its aircraft carriers and submarines. For fiscal years 2015 through 2019, the Navy spent $2.8 billion in capital investments to address shipyard performance, among other things. However, the shipyards continue to face persistent and substantial maintenance delays that hinder the readiness of aircraft carriers and submarines. The Senate Armed Services Committee, in a report accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, included a provision for GAO to review Navy shipyards' performance. GAO evaluated the extent to which the Navy (1) completed maintenance at its shipyards on time on aircraft carriers and submarines in fiscal years 2015 through 2019, (2) has identified the main factors leading to maintenance delays, and (3) has addressed the main factors affecting any delays in that maintenance. GAO reviewed data related to Navy shipyard maintenance for fiscal years 2015 through 2019, analyzed factors contributing to delays and plans to address them, visited all four Navy shipyards, and met with Navy and shipyard officials. GAO is making three recommendations to the Navy, including updating workforce planning requirements to avoid the consistent use of overtime; completing the development of shipyard performance metrics; and developing and implementing goals, action plans, milestones, and monitoring results. The Navy concurred with all three recommendations. For more information, contact Diana Maurer, (202) 512-9627, MaurerD@gao.gov, or Asif A. Khan, (202) 512-9869, KhanA@gao.gov. 
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  • DOD Financial Management: Continued Efforts Needed to Correct Material Weaknesses Identified in Financial Statement Audits
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Defense (DOD) continues to face financial management issues and challenges that have prevented it from obtaining a clean audit opinion on the fair presentation of its financial statements. Specifically, financial statement auditors issued disclaimers of opinion on DOD's and the military services' fiscal year 2018 and 2019 financial statements. These disclaimers resulted from numerous material weaknesses based on thousands of notices of findings and recommendations (NFR) that the auditors issued. Of the 2,409 NFRs issued to DOD and its components in fiscal year 2018, DOD's auditors were able to close 623 (26 percent) in fiscal year 2019; the remaining 1,786 (74 percent) remained open. These results provide useful insights on DOD's remediation progress since beginning department-wide full audits in fiscal year 2018; it is important for DOD to equal or exceed this progress in the future. Financial statement audits have value beyond the audit opinion and can help management save resources and improve military readiness. DOD leadership identified a number of benefits that resulted from these financial statement audits. For example, the Navy identified a warehouse that was not in its property records that contained approximately $126 million in aircraft parts. The Navy was able to fill over $20 million in open orders for these parts. By using these parts, aircraft were repaired quicker and made available for use, which improved military readiness. To help guide and prioritize department-wide efforts, DOD identified eight audit remediation priority areas (four in 2019 and four in 2020), seven of which specifically related to material weaknesses that its auditor reported. The military services also developed methodologies to prioritize NFRs and determined that over half of their fiscal year 2018 NFRs are high priority and significant to their financial statement audits. DOD and its components have taken steps to develop corrective action plans (CAP) to address NFRs. However, most of the CAPs that GAO tested did not include at least one data element or evidence that a root-cause analysis was performed, as directed by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other related guidance, in part, because DOD guidance and monitoring efforts did not clearly identify the need for such documentation. As a result, DOD and its components may lack sufficient information and assurance that their remediation efforts will resolve the underlying causes associated with the NFRs and related material weaknesses. Based on these issues, DOD and its components are at increased risk that their actions may not effectively address identified deficiencies in a timely manner. DOD developed an NFR Database that contains useful information on deficiencies that financial auditors identified and actions to address them, which has improved its ability to monitor and report on audit remediation efforts using dashboard reports based on real-time data contained in the database. However, certain database information on which these reports are based may not be accurate, reliable, and complete. For example, although DOD reviews NFR Database information monthly, it does not follow up on instances of outdated information or other exceptions identified to ensure components resolve them timely. Without complete and reliable information on DOD's audit remediation efforts, internal and external stakeholders may not have quality information to effectively monitor and measure DOD's progress. DOD is responsible for about half of the federal government's discretionary spending, yet it remains the only major federal agency that has been unable to receive a clean audit opinion on its financial statements. After years of working toward financial statement audit readiness, DOD underwent full financial statement audits in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. This report, developed in connection with fulfilling GAO's mandate to audit the U.S. government's consolidated financial statements, examines the (1) actions taken by DOD and the military services to prioritize financial statement audit findings; (2) extent to which DOD and its components developed CAPs to address audit findings in accordance with OMB, DOD, and other guidance; and (3) extent to which DOD improved its ability to monitor and report on audit remediation efforts. GAO reviewed documentation and interviewed officials about DOD's and the military services' audit remediation prioritization, monitoring, and reporting. GAO selected a generalizable sample of 98 NFRs to determine whether CAPs to address them were developed according to established guidance. GAO is making five recommendations to DOD to improve the quality of CAPs to address audit findings and information in the NFR Database and related reports provided to internal and external stakeholders to monitor and assess audit remediation efforts. DOD concurred with three of GAO's recommendations, partially concurred with one recommendation, and disagreed with one recommendation. GAO continues to believe that all the recommendations are valid. For more information, contact Asif A. Khan at (202) 512-9869 or khana@gao.gov.
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  • Latvian National Charged for Alleged Role in Transnational Cybercrime Organization
    In Crime News
    A Latvian national was arraigned in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio, today on multiple charges stemming from her alleged role in a transnational cybercrime organization responsible for creating and deploying a computer banking trojan and ransomware suite of malware known as “Trickbot.” 
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