DOJ: Mayor de Blasio Favored Protests Over Religious Freedoms During COVID-19 Shutdown

Mayor Bill de Blasio favored protesters over religious institutions when it came to enforcing COVID-19 rules, according to the U.S. Justice Department. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

WINDSOR TERRACE — When it came to enforcing the coronavirus restrictions, Mayor Bill de Blasio favored protesters over parishioners. That was the blunt assessment of the U.S. Justice Department, which fired off a letter to the mayor on June 19 urging him to be fairer in his dealings during the pandemic.

On June 26, a federal judge ruled that New York State had exceeded its authority by enforcing a rule capping the attendance at religious services at 25 percent capacity.

U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe issued a preliminary injunction blocking the state from enforcing the 25 percent cap on the grounds that businesses and restaurants had a different cap placed on them of 50 percent – something that he said was unfair to religious institutions.

In his ruling, he cited comments from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio that appeared to encourage people to take part in massive protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death during a time when attendance at religious services was limited.

The letter, posted on the DOJ’s website, was written by Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division.

“In light of your support for and participation in recent protests in New York City, the message to the public from New York City’s government appears to favor certain secular gatherings and disfavor religious gatherings,” Dreiband wrote.

As an example, Dreiband pointed to media reports describing de Blasio’s “vigorous enforcement” of restrictions on religious gatherings, including incidents in which police were dispatched to break up gatherings of the Jewish community such as funerals. While, at the same time, de Blasio marched with protesters who gathered in large numbers on city streets.

“As the City moves into Phase 2, the Department of Justice respectfully encourages you to reconsider your posture toward religious gatherings and, as necessary, work with Governor Cuomo to that end,” Dreiband wrote to the mayor.

Dreiband also urged de Blasio to ensure that any enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions “respects both the right of your residents to assemble to express their views on a diverse spectrum of topics and the right to practice their faith.”

The letter was followed by a statement issued on June 22 by Dreiband and U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, for the Eastern District of Michigan, who are overseeing the Justice Department’s monitoring of state and local COVID-19 policies.

“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,” the statement reads. “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.”

Phase Two of the reopening of New York City began on June 22. Under the second phase, houses of worship are allowed to be open for religious services with attendance not exceeding 25 percent capacity of the building.

Msgr. Kieran Harrington, rector of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph, Prospect Heights, said many Catholics were upset that churches were closed to Masses while street protests were being permitted by the city. He urged Catholics to call 311 to complain.

“This is about the right to assemble and the right to worship,” Msgr. Harrington told The Tablet in a recent interview. “God is being ignored by public officials, just because they may not be people of faith and feel the same need to return to Church.”

He criticized political leaders for not respecting people of faith and viewing their demands to return to church with the same sense of urgency as the demands of the protesters.

Msgr. Harrington pointed to a decision by de Blasio in April to dispatch NYPD officials to break up a crowd of 2,000 Orthodox Jews at a funeral for a rabbi. The mayor then allowed thousands of people to “stand shoulder to shoulder” in Brooklyn, he said.

“What was the difference between the scenes in Williamsburg [with the Hasidic community] and that of what was taking place in Cadman Plaza?” asked Msgr. Harrington.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Tablet.

The story was updated to include comments from Msgr. Kieran Harrington and information on the federal judge’s ruling.