New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently issued a threat to churches in his city. If they continue to hold worship services, thereby disobeying the city’s stay-at-home guidance, he could close them down “permanently.”
“A small number of religious communities, specific churches and specific synagogues, are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance even though it’s so widespread,” de Blasio said in an interview with reporters on March 27. “I want to say to all those who are preparing for the potential of religious services this weekend: If you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services.”
“If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently,” he warned.
Now, it’s unclear how de Blasio would have the authority to suspend the First Amendment and permanently close church buildings. But his threat to attempt to do so is undoubtedly disconcerting to churchgoing New Yorkers.
De Blasio’s concern over the growing pandemic in his city is not without reason. According to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Tracker, New York City has 44,915 cases of COVID-19 as of publishing time, more than any other city in the country by far. Additionally, 1,139 people have died from the virus in New York City alone.
“Any attempt by government officials to permanently alter the ‘free exercise of religion’ and the ‘right of a people peaceably to assemble’ will be met with the stiffest of opposition by the American people—and rightly so,” First Liberty Special Counsel Jeremy Dys said in a statement to The Daily Citizen.
“We ought, instead, to focus on ways church and state can work together to not only stem the effects of the coronavirus and promote peace within our communities, but preserve our God-given freedoms for when we arrive on the other side of this pandemic.”
In an op-ed in The New York Daily News, Kristen Waggoner, senior vice president for U.S. legal division at Alliance Defending Freedom wrote, “Neither de Blasio nor any other officials have the constitutional authority to permanently close churches and synagogues. The government cannot permanently ban the practice of fundamental rights — the freedom to exercise religion included. Using a crisis to permanently curtail religious freedom is unconscionably cruel and does nothing but harm our communities.”
Intriguingly, de Blasio did not mention closing any mosques permanently in his remarks. He specifically singled out churches and synagogues, even though New York City is home to over 750,000 Muslims comprising 9% of the city’s population.
This fact leaves open the question of whether de Blasio would target churches and synagogues for closure but leave mosques alone.
During this coronavirus pandemic, it’s difficult for church leaders and government officials to balance protecting public health with the religious needs of Americans. But surely threatening to permanently close churches and synagogues does much more harm than good. De Blasio’s rhetoric could leave New Yorkers concerned, wondering whether their mayor really has their best interest in mind.
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