New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that ongoing protests in the city merit exceptions to coronavirus regulations, while religious services do not. The mayor’s remarks have drawn criticism from New York’s archdiocese.
“When you see a nation, an entire nation simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services,” de Blasio said at a June 2 press conference, while defending his policy of allowing mass protests while continuing to restrict religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Wednesday, Ed Mechmann, director of public policy for the Archdiocese of New York, said the mayor’s policy shows that religious liberty is now considered a low priority in the city.
“It is clear that in the eyes of our government officials, the politically preferred viewpoint of anti-racism is favored and allowed, while the unpopular one of religious worship is belittled and denigrated,” Mechmann wrote on the archdiocesan website June 3.
With the differing standards of the city for protests and religious gatherings, Mechmann said, “we have once again been given proof that religious liberty is a second-class right.”
New York has been under a strict stay-at-home order starting March 22, and it is only in the early stages of reopening public spaces.
According to the state’s public health department, the city will not enter “phase one” of reopening until June 8. New Yorkers are being instructed to “wear a mask and maintain 6 feet distance in public.”
Meanwhile, protesters have gathered nightly by the thousands across the city to demonstrate against racism and police brutality following the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody.
Mechmann praised peaceful protests in the city, but noted that Americans also have a right to the free exercise of religion. To honor one right while ignoring the other, he said, is discriminatory.
“This is no longer a question of neutral public health laws that are applied generally to everyone without discrimination. This is indifference and incomprehension at best, bias and discrimination at worst,” Mechmann wrote.
“The right to peaceful assembly, free speech, and petitioning the government for redress of grievances are right there in the First Amendment,” he said. “I’ve marched for the causes I support, so I support others when they do the same.”
Coincidental with the demonstrations, New York City has seen violence, vandalism and looting in the city over a period of several days. NYPD have said they made more than 900 arrests on Monday and Tuesday alone.
According to media reports, Mayor de Blasio’s daughter was arrested on Saturday along with 100 other protestors in a demonstration which saw roads blocked and objects thrown at police. After she was reportedly issued with a ticket for disorderly conduct, Mayor de Blasio said he believed his daughter had peacefully protested and he was “proud of her that she cares so much and she was willing to go out there and do something about it.”
On Thursday, the mayor announced that restaurants in the city will shortly be allowed to serve patrons outdoors.
“New York’s restaurants are part of what make us the greatest city in the world. They’ve taken a hit in our fight against COVID-19 – and there’s no recovery without them,” de Blasio stated. Churches are not slated to fully reopen until stage four of the state’s reopening program, along with schools, theaters, and entertainment venues.
Public Mass in the Archdiocese of New York has been suspended since March to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Churches in the city are open for private prayer, but not public Masses of even ten or fewer people.
Mayor de Blasio has already faced criticism for his treatment of houses of worship during the coronavirus pandemic, threatening mass arrests or even permanent closure of churches and synagogues that did not comply with public orders.
On March 27, the mayor called out a "small number of religious communities, specific churches and specific synagogues” for continuing to hold services during New York’s stay-at-home order.
If the services continued, he said, “our enforcement agents” would shut them down, and he threatened fines and even permanent closure of houses of worship for further disobedience of the order.
When thousands gathered to mourn at the funeral of a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn in late April, de Blasio said the mass gathering was “absolutely unacceptable.”
He threatened future religious gatherings with mass arrests.
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups,” he tweeted.
At the end of a June 3 press conference, de Blasio invoked the 1971 song “Imagine” by John Lennon to discuss the situation in the city while saying “I don’t mean to make light of this.”
The song imagines a more perfect world in which there is “no heaven” and “no religion.” De Blasio said the song asks essential questions “about a world where people got along differently.”
“What about a world where we didn’t live with a lot of the restrictions that we live with now?” he said. “But we’re not there yet. We are making a lot of progress, I truly believe,” he said.