Here’s a curious theory: Exercising your First Amendment rights protesting in the streets is perfectly acceptable in the time of COVID-19, but doing it in church isn’t.
Unsurprisingly, it comes from Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City. If you like open hostility toward religion, de Blasio has distinguished himself during the pandemic, particularly as it regards the city’s Orthodox Jewish population.
However, make no mistake — de Blasio is an ecumenical fellow, and if you’re an American who believes you still have the ability to exercise your constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, he has contempt for you.
He’s zealously enforced any and all proscriptions on religious communities being able to worship in person, almost with relish. At one point, he said that any religious congregation that insisted on gathering would be closed down permanently. I’m not sure how that even works.
It may not surprise you to learn that de Blasio’s view of the First Amendment is substantially different when he discusses protesting. (Presuming it’s the right kind of protest — don’t take to the streets in favor of reopening the economy or anything!) A court disagreed, issuing a preliminary injunction New York’s decision to limit religious services arbitrarily.
It’s not just because of the protests, mind you. Under New York state’s reopening plan, churches, synagogues and mosques were limited to 25 percent capacity while other gathering spaces — such as businesses — were limited to 50 percent capacity, according to an ABC News report from June 26.
“Governor [Andrew] Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio could have just as easily discouraged protests, short of condemning their message, in the name of public health and exercised discretion to suspend enforcement for public safety reasons instead of encouraging what they knew was a flagrant disregard of the outdoor limits and social distancing rules,” the judge wrote in his ruling.
“They could have also been silent. But by acting as they did, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment.”
CNN asked de Blasio about this on Wednesday’s edition of “New Day.”
.@NYCMayor De Blasio defends banning religious gatherings but not #BlackLivesMatter marches: “It’s really apples and oranges. Our religious leaders were the first to say it was not time to bring back services.” pic.twitter.com/IG1wPP6w8T
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) July 1, 2020
“No, it’s just wrong,” de Blasio said. “We worked with the religious leadership of this city for months, Cardinal Dolan and the Catholic church and so many other religious leaders who are in full agreement that it was not time to bring back religious services because of the danger it would cause to their congregants.
“The protests were an entirely different reality, a national phenomenon, that was not something that the government could just say, you know, ‘go away,’ it’s something that really came from the grassroots. And obviously, it had profound meaning and we’re all acting on the meaning of those protests.
“But it’s really apples and oranges,” he continued. “Our religious leaders were the first to say it was not time to bring back services. Now we’re doing it carefully, smartly. So I — I think that decision profoundly misses what the very religious institutions themselves were saying.”
There are a number of glaring problems with this.
First, on working with the religious leadership of New York City: I’m curious when a select group of religious leaders in a city got to determine what the First Amendment means. This group certainly didn’t include Orthodox Jewish leaders, from all appearances. It also makes it appear that de Blasio thinks congregational leaders are best able to determine what works best for their congregation. Yes, you were probably better off staying home and watching a livestream of services. That’s not for the government to decide, though. The First Amendment is pretty explicit on this, as you may have realized:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That also means you can protest, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’re apples and oranges. In fact, that’s another issue. If they’re in the same amendment, it’s pretty much comparing apples to apples. To the extent that de Blasio doesn’t want to recognize this, it’s because he’s better able to control religious services. In fact, he pretty much admits it.
Note the language de Blasio uses here, as it’s close enough to an admission of guilt as you’ll get: “That was not something that the government could just say, you know, ‘go away,’ it’s something that really came from the grassroots.”
Not that de Blasio made any attempt to control the protests, but he’s saying even if he did, he couldn’t control them. Religious services, meanwhile, those are smaller and easier to break up with the aid of police (not to mention generally conducted and attended by law-abiding people). When it comes to protests, though, the city can just stand back and let tens of thousands of people gather in one place.
Another troubling thing about the language de Blasio used is the fact that, by ascribing the qualities he did to the protests and not to religious gatherings, he’s essentially (and incorrectly) assuming those qualities are lacking in religious services.
Religion isn’t something that will “go away” — and the fact de Blasio chose those words is more than a little unsettling. Religions act at a grassroots level, drawing believers in for worship. And in the most telling of de Blasio’s Freudian slips, he seems to indicate the protests were a profound experience, as though religious worship were not. If this is the apple to religion’s orange, the implications of that should raise a few eyebrows.
The First Amendment isn’t materially changed by “national phenomena.” It’s not something that cares whether or not a movement is “grassroots” or it’s something you don’t think you can control. It means what it means and it requires politicians to treat all forms of protected assembly equally.
For de Blasio to pretend it doesn’t evinces a profound, willful ignorance about the Constitution.
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