DOJ Sends Letter To NYC Mayor Warning Of Unequal Treatment To Places Of Worship

( Officials from the Department of Justice are warning New York City that they can’t enforce restrictions on religious gatherings but not do anything about mass public protests.

In a letter sent to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this week, U.S. Attorney General Matthew Schneider of the Eastern District of Michigan and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband wrote:

“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 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 two U.S. Attorneys are currently overseeing the DOJ’s monitoring of local and state policies as related to the coronavirus pandemic. Attorney General William Barr warned local governments not to go too far when imposing restrictions on religious institutions, unless those restrictions were equal across the board.

During Phase 2 of New York City’s reopening plan, houses of worship are allowed to welcome indoor guests, but only up to 25% of their normal capacity. Before the city entered this phase, only 10 people were allowed to attend indoor religious services.

At the same time, political protests with a large amount of people packed close together were happening in New York City. The DOJ letter said this raised “several civil rights concerns.” Further, the actions by de Blasio himself “raised substantial concerns about New York City’s commitment to evenhanded application of robust First Amendment protections.”

The letter continued:

“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.

“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.”

Dreiband said that de Blasio’s support for peaceful public protest was commendable, saying “like the people of New York City, and all across our country, we are deeply troubled by the death of George Floyd.” That being said, the DOJ must recognize that the constitution requires “equal treatment under the laws, without regard to race, religion or other protected traits.

“The First Amendment protects religious observers against unequal treatment. Government may not discriminate against religious gatherings compared to other nonreligious gatherings that have the same effect on the government’s public health interest, absent compelling reasons.”

In other words, restrictions on religious gatherings are OK as long as those restrictions are equal to and in line with restrictions on other forms of life. If, for example, religious gatherings must be limited, then so, too, must the protests — no matter how good of a cause they’re for.