New York Mayor’s Threat Against Congregations Prompts Condemnation From Civil Liberties Defenders

March 31, 2020 Updated: March 31, 2020

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped on a bipartisan political landmine March 29 when he threatened to permanently close religious congregations that host worship services and other gatherings in defiance of social-distancing orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The American people are patient and will tolerate temporary impositions on their freedoms if it means they can demonstrate love for their neighbor. But that tolerance begins to grow thin when politicians carelessly threaten to ‘permanently’ shut down synagogues, churches, and other houses of worship, irresponsibly enflaming an already emotional issue,” First Liberty Institute special counsel Jeremy Dys told The Epoch Times.

“Such careless talk by Mayor de Blasio harms the ability of church and state to work together, not only to provide calm and comfort during a global pandemic, but to strengthen religious freedom,” Dys said on March 31.

“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,” added Dys, who is special counsel for litigation and communications for the Plano, Texas-based law firm devoted exclusively to defending First Amendment religious freedoms.

Taxpayers Protection Alliance President David Williams was also blunt, telling The Epoch Times on March 31 that “this pandemic has brought out the authoritarian nature of some government officials. It is unacceptable to arrest or threaten permanent closure of any place of worship because of the pandemic.”

Williams said de Blasio and other officials “ordering the arrest of clergy need to think of the long-term consequences of their actions as it relates to freedom of religion and the authoritarian power of the government and government officials.”

Others across the political spectrum joined in the condemnation of de Blasio’s threat.

“Natural disasters, public health crises, and of course war, can force public officials to take drastic, temporary action to save human life. This can include canceling gatherings that would threaten the public health,” Baltimore-based Democratic campaign strategist Christian Hanley told The Epoch Times.

“Fortunately, the First Amendment protects us from officials abrogating our rights to freely assemble absent an ongoing emergency. Any fears about such a scenario should be put to rest by our nation’s courts, which have the power to stop a public official from curtailing our right to freely associate after the emergency has passed,” Hanley told The Epoch Times when asked about de Blasio’s threat.

Similarly, Kevin Chavous, a Washington-based Democratic strategist, told The Epoch Times that “de Blasio is overreaching here. I agree that a significant penalty must be imposed, but permanent closure goes too far.”

Chavous said penalties that are justified should be directed against pastors, not congregations. “A steep financial fine, assessed to the pastors themselves, would probably do the job,” he said.

A day after the mayor’s threat, Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne, senior pastor of the River of Tampa Bay Church in Florida, was arrested for holding services at his facility.

Howard-Browne posted $500 bond in local court after being charged with violating public health emergency directives and illegally assembling. Howard-Browne didn’t respond to a request for comment March 31 by The Epoch Times.

California-based Democratic consultant Spencer Critchley told The Epoch Times that “we must always be wary of any infringement on free speech,” but he cautioned that “no right is unlimited. Just like you can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, you shouldn’t risk peoples’ lives by assembling a crowd during this pandemic.”

Cully Stimson, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and manager of the national security law program at the think tank’s Institute for Constitutional Government, condemned de Blasio’s “comment that he’s going to shut them down permanently” because he “has no authority to do it.”

But Stimson also noted that state officials have wide latitude when dealing with dire public health problems and other threats to public safety.

“Remember that even the most draconian invocations of executive power here have all styled themselves as temporary and these are powers that no doubt they do have,” Stimson told The Epoch Times. “But they are temporary and only meant to be applicable as long as the virus is a public health threat.”

Stay-at-home warnings and orders issued by authorities in Florida, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and California, and other places “don’t apply to discriminate against people based on their religion, it’s meant in the ’10-persons-or-less’ to apply to everybody,” he said.

Since the directives are neutral and based on numerical thresholds for application, Stimson said, “the churches really have no special status. They’re no different from somebody in school or who wants to play soccer or whatever.”

Stimson said one result of the current stay-at-home atmosphere is encouraging congregations of all faiths across the country to get creative about holding services on the Internet.

Even so, Stimson said de Blasio’s threat “came across as anti-religious, and it really rankled a lot of people. He will suffer politically as a result of that, as he should.”

Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc