Washington D.C., Jun 23, 2020 / 15:18 pm
New York City cannot enforce coronavirus restrictions strictly on religious gatherings and leave mass public protests untouched, leading U.S. Department of Justice officials said in a letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Mayor de Blasio’s recent public statements and enforcement of COVID-19 orders have demonstrated a troubling preference for certain First Amendment rights over others,” said leading Justice Department officials June 22.
“The Justice Department is glad Mayor de Blasio will now permit greater religious exercise and will continue to monitor New York City’s reopening to ensure that New York City extends the same respect to the freedom of religion, both in terms of indoor and outdoor gatherings, as it does to the freedoms of speech and assembly.”
The statement came from Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney General Matthew Schneider of the Eastern District of Michigan. They are overseeing the U.S. Department of Justice’s monitoring of state and local policies related to the novel coronavirus epidemic.
“New York City had vigorously enforced restrictions on religious gatherings, including by sending police officers to disperse numerous gatherings of the Jewish community, including outdoor funerals,” said the Justice Department in its June 22 statement.
“At the same time, Mayor de Blasio marched in large in-person political gatherings concerning the recent tragic death of George Floyd and made statements suggesting — in a manner forbidden by the First Amendment — that religious exercise was less valued and protected by New York City than political exercise.”
The New York City mayor’s move to Phase 2 of the city’s reopening plan began June 21. This phase allows houses of worship to open to 25% of their indoor capacity, after allowing only 10 or fewer attendees under previous rules. This move provided “much-needed relief” for New Yorkers, the Justice Department said, noting that the department’s civil rights division had acted in response to the city’s treatment of religion.
The Justice Department said a letter to de Blasio from Dreiband last week objected that the city allowed large gatherings for political protest but did not permit in-person religious gatherings.