On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that the city could shut down places of worship if congregants continued to violate the state’s stay-at-home orders.
“A small number of religious communities, specific churches, and specific synagogues are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance even though it’s so widespread,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “I want to say to all those who are preparing for the potential of religious services this weekend: If you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services.”
The mayor said that city staff members have been instructed to break up church services and to “take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently,” if worshippers do not comply.
De Blasio: churches and synagogues that hold worship services may be closed permanently pic.twitter.com/kdUsdbP2YO
— Matthew Schmitz (@matthewschmitz) March 29, 2020
Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at the religious freedom law firm First Liberty, condemned de Blasio’s threat in remarks to PJ Media.
“The American people will tolerate a lot during a time of national pandemic. They will not tolerate government threats to permanently close Houses of Worship. 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 warned.
First Liberty has warned of legal action against a Texas city that targeted religious services for special coronavirus restrictions, leading that city to revise the restrictions to honor religious freedom. First Liberty has also released an essential guidance document to help churches and other religious bodies to protect their rights from government intrusion during this crisis.
First Liberty does not advise churches to violate government mandates like stay-at-home orders, but it does advise them to hold state and local governments accountable if they single out any form of religious body for special restrictions during this time. While government officials like de Blasio exercise expanded power during a crisis like this one, their extraordinary authority can only last for the duration of the crisis. Temporary stay-at-home orders, evenly applied to all, are lawful, but threats of permanent closures are a gross abuse of this temporary authority.
While churches and their congregations should seek to hold officials accountable, First Liberty’s guidance includes one most essential piece of advice. Churches “should continue to serve their local communities,” engaging in “acts of mercy, providing shelter, or simply being a source of encouragement and peace in times of crisis,” carrying on a proud tradition of religious contributions to American life.
By doing so, they will echo the early church, which set a powerful example by serving the sick and dying during Roman plagues in the 100s and 200s A.D. While pagans would cast aside infected people, Christians would serve them, risking exposure in the process, but saving many lives. This act of service not only helped save lives but also spread the gospel in a hostile culture.
The best argument for religious freedom isn’t an assertion of rights but an example of faith-based charity. Even as churches respond to this kind of aggressive rhetoric from de Blasio, they should prioritize concrete acts of mercy.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.