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In New York, Protests Must Go On, but Religious Services May Not

In New York, Protests Must Go On, but Religious Services May Not
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks after the USNS Comfort pulled into a berth in Manhattan during the coronavirus outbreak, New York City, March 30, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

De Blasio’s policy escalates the Left’s war on religious liberty.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has become a convenient punching bag for both the Right and the Left. But if nothing else, de Blasio deserves credit for candor in offering an explanation for a glaring contradiction in his enforcement of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

The mayor has been a zealous enforcer of lockdown regulations, with a particular emphasis on targeting ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn. Though Jews were far from the only ones accused of violating social-distancing rules, in April de Blasio tweeted out a warning to “the Jewish community” in which he threatened to send the police to arrest all those who gathered in groups, a reference to instances of Jews attending weddings, funerals, and religious services.

After several days of mass protests against police brutality (with some simply supporting the abolition of police), followed by nights in which crowds of rioters rampaged through parts of the city looting iconic stores, such as the Macy’s in Herald Square, it was clear that stopping people from gathering “in large numbers” was no longer a priority. Yet even as the NYPD stood by as huge crowds marched against racism, the police were rousting Orthodox families out of Brooklyn parks and breaking up religious study sessions that were not in compliance with social-distancing regulations.

On Tuesday, a reporter for Hamodia, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish publication, asked de Blasio about this discrepancy. His reply spoke volumes about liberal contempt for religious freedom.

The reporter asked how it was possible for the city to tolerate mass demonstrations over George Floyd’s murder when the police were still enforcing pandemic restrictions on small businesses as well as churches, synagogues, and mosques.

The mayor’s answer was that “the extraordinary crisis seated in 400 years of racism” was “not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”

In other words, because he approved of the motives of some protesters and of the content of their protest, their demonstrations are uniquely privileged in a way that those seeking to exercise their right to religious liberty were not. While de Blasio was more outspoken about this policy, his pronouncement appeared to reflect the way other states and cities were prepared to wink at protests against the police while insisting on pretending that the pandemic prevented other activities.

Perhaps this is just a function of the identity politics that governs many on the left, or the plain fact that cities and states don’t have the ability to enforce the law, let alone pandemic restrictions, when so many people are determined to ignore them.

But coming as it did just a few days after the Supreme Court case of South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, in which Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the court’s four liberal members to rule that California’s prohibition of religious services during the COVID-19 outbreak was not unconstitutional, it seems like a bad joke.

There, the majority held that it was “indisputably clear” that the Constitution gives officials of the states the duty “to guard and protect” the “safety and the health of the people,” meaning California had the right to issue pandemic restrictions on houses of worship and other mass gatherings alike. Only a few days later, the same mainstream media and governmental-establishment consensus that viewed religious services and other public gatherings during a pandemic as irresponsible has disappeared.

The brutal killing of George Floyd rightly outraged most Americans. But lost amid the debate is the question of whether selective enforcement of the law has fundamentally undermined religious liberty.

Mayor de Blasio’s blithe assertion that he has the right to pick and choose which kinds of constitutionally protected behavior to respect and which he may trample may have been unique in its candor. But it is indicative of the way states and cities are treating the issue. If some citizens can break pandemic rules with impunity because they are protesting racism while others can have their right to worship or to go to work taken away by the government because of fears about the spread of disease, that is more than merely a legal conundrum or hypocrisy. It is a sign that big-government liberals view respect for basic constitutional freedoms as dependent on whether they approve of the intent of those seeking to exercise their rights.

It’s one thing if supermarkets are allowed to stay open while churches or synagogues are not. It’s quite another when the right to freely assemble to allege that America is a racist nation is considered more important than upholding the First Amendment rights of other Americans to practice their faith or to express opinions that are not favored by the editors of the New York Times.

There’s no real debate in this country about whether George Floyd’s murderer should be punished. But if coronavirus restrictions don’t apply to the right of one group to assemble — peacefully or not — how can they legally, logically, or morally be imposed on others who want to exercise the same right? They can’t. If states and municipalities are going to turn a blind eye to the way mass gatherings of people with fashionable opinions violate pandemic restrictions, then they must also drop their efforts to prohibit religious services and other constitutionally protected activities. This selective enforcement as well as the seeming inability of our leaders to defend the lives and property of citizens is the death of the rule of law and faith in our democratic institutions.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of and a contributor to National Review.

© 2020 National Review

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