Home Coronavirus Updates & Stories NYC Mayor: Houses of Worship That Defy Directives May Be Closed Permanently

NYC Mayor: Houses of Worship That Defy Directives May Be Closed Permanently

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Though most churches have temporarily moved online to help reduce virus transmission, the few that have defied government orders are making headlines and raising the ire of officials. Now New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is under fire for what religious-liberty advocates call an overreach of authority.

During a March 27 briefing, de Blasio addressed stay-at-home orders in the pandemic’s U.S. epicenter. He thanked religious leaders who are complying but warned that law enforcement would “disperse” any large worship services and, if necessary, “take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”

Mayor de Blasio acknowledged the importance of faith, especially during crises, and said closing churches is “the last thing” he wants to do. But public safety is paramount, he said, and “no faith tradition endorses anything that endangers the members of that faith.”

 

NYC Mayor’s Threat Violates Freedoms, Critics Say

Reaction to de Blasio’s warning was swift, with pastors and legal experts citing constitutional rights. Pastor Bart Barber tweets that “city mayors do not have the authority to suspend the First Amendment” and urged de Blasio to “clarify or correct your threat.” He adds that his Texas church is currently closed “not because we must, but because we should.”

Americans “will tolerate a lot” during a crisis, says attorney Jeremy Dys, but they won’t abide threats of permanent closure. Dys adds that de Blasio’s “careless talk…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.”

Kristen Waggoner with Alliance Defending Freedom writes, “Our laws ensure that governments only limit religious free exercise for a ‘compelling interest’ of the ‘highest order,’ and even then, only if they do it with the ‘least restrictive means.’” By contrast, she says, “Using a crisis to permanently curtail religious freedom is unconscionably cruel and does nothing but harm our communities.”

Al Mohler: Following Orders Is Justified 

Several Southern Baptist leaders have spoken out about the controversy, including Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. “While I would encourage churches to honor requests regarding public meetings in the attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19,” he says, “this is an opportunity to show neighbor love rather than for the establishment of state authority over religious exercise.”

Travis Wussow with the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission says, “We need both elected officials thinking about why religion is essential and religious leaders thinking about the complexities of public health.”

On his podcast, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president  Albert Mohler says protests by Christians would be appropriate if churches were being unconstitutionally singled out. “But as it stands right now,” he says, “Christians, given the commandments of love of God and love of neighbor, have ample justification right now to follow the orders, demands, and requests of lawful government not to assemble, along with other assemblies not assembling, until it is safe for us to assemble once again.”

Admitting there’s a fine line between “the lawful authority of government and the danger of government,” Mohler says de Blasio remained within his power until issuing a final threat. “It’s one thing…to say, ‘You can’t meet because no assembly can meet for some defined time under a necessary and legitimate threat,’” Mohler says. “It’s quite a different thing to say, ‘If you violate this order, we will confiscate your building and shut down your services permanently.’”

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Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 27 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.