Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City and former Democratic presidential candidate, has done such a poor job handling the COVID-19 pandemic that liberal news magazine The Atlantic ran an article about him on April 6 entitled “The Mayor Who Can’t Rise to the Occasion.” In that article, Alexander Nazaryan says that de Blasio seems irritated about having to deal with the coronavirus and “has indicated that irritation with the subtlety of a Times Square advertisement” and that “he has evinced no passion for New Yorkers, or New York.”
Of course, much of that article, and a March 26 column in the Intelligencer headlined “When New York Needed Him Most, Bill de Blasio Had His Worst Week As Mayor,” both focus on de Blasio not doing enough, soon enough, to combat COVID-19. If you were frustrated or upset by de Blasio’s early reluctance to take tyrannical measures in New York City, then you must be delighted by the way he has made up for it since then.
On March 27 de Blasio held a press conference in which he outlined all of the steps that would be taken to combat the spread of the virus. You can read a complete transcript of the press conference if you’d like, but about twenty-three minutes into it he begins to address religious gatherings. De Blasio commended religious leaders for taking steps to minimize risk and for going to online services when they were able to do so, but then transitioned to threat mode: “I want to say to all those who are preparing 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.” He wasn’t finished, though. Saying that in-person religious services were to cease wasn’t yet unconstitutional enough for him, apparently, as he decided to go all the way, adding,
So, the NYPD, Fire Department, Buildings Department, everyone has been instructed that if they see worship services going on, they will go to the officials of that congregation, they’ll inform them they need to stop the services and disperse. If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.
The reaction to that was swift and widespread. Kristin Waggoner, writing in the Daily News, said that de Blasio needed to apologize and clarify if his “threat was a careless exaggeration,” and that if it was not an exaggeration “his threat was both cruel and unconstitutional.” One might expect that response from Waggoner, though, since she is the senior vice president for Alliance Defending Freedom and was the lead counsel for Jack Phillips and the Masterpiece Cakeshop. Another conservative organization, the First Liberty Institute, “said de Blasio’s statement crossed the line from protecting people in a pandemic to totalitarian action against churches and religious institutions,” according to an article on RealClear Politics. Terry Firma, on The Friendly Atheist, said “good on him” to de Blasio’s bluster because, according to Firma, “Too many religious people apparently believe that their faith should excuse them from any responsibility for the health and well-being of their fellow citizens.” One might excuse an atheist for not knowing that that is actually the very opposite of what many “religious people” are taught within their faith. I would love to tell you that even some Democrats spoke out against de Blasio’s dictatorial statement, but I have been unable to find any examples.
Fast forward a few weeks and de Blasio stepped it up another notch. Following the example of Eric Garcetti, de Blasio announced via Twitter on April 18 that New Yorkers could help ensure compliance with social distancing orders. Reporting is simple: “just snap a photo and text it to 311-692,” the tweet read. Not surprisingly, the number was inundated with texts and pictures—many of them inappropriate and/or expressing opposition to the encouragement to spy on one another.
In between the threat to permanently close churches and synagogues and his exhortation for New Yorkers to become government snoops, de Blasio urged President Trump to deploy the military to address the pandemic and he signed an executive order the NYPD and the Sheriff’s Department the authority to seize unused medical equipment. According to NYC, the “official website of the City of New York” de Blasio called, on April 2, for “the federal government to institute an essential draft of all private medical personnel to help in the fight against COVID-19.” Writing of de Blasio’s draft proposal, J.D. Tuccille wrote, “Bill de Blasio isn’t alone as a government official who sees in the crisis an opportunity to go full commissar.”
For his asserted conviction that he has the right to permanently close churches and synagogues, that he has the right to order the seizure of medical equipment, that medical personnel should be assigned to his fiefdom and his encouragement for New Yorkers to snitch on one another, Bill de Blasio is the second selection for my Profiles of Tyranny series.
I realize that some people considered my post about the unconstitutionality of government restrictions on gatherings to be alarmist. We are in the midst of an unusual situation that calls for unusual measures in order to save lives, after all. Before I go on, let me clarify that at no time did I intend to suggest that all recommendations and guidelines should be ignored or that COVID-19 is a farce. I understand that the virus is real, I understand that there may be need for precautions and even extraordinary steps to be taken. At the same time, please realize that there are real, informed and legitimate differences of opinion on what those steps should be. Even more importantly, please realize that someone—namely, at the moment, me—can simultaneously value life, acknowledge the threat that is COVID-19 and still believe that the Constitution should not be violated. I happen to believe that constitutional protections are there for a reason and need to be protected even when they are most inconvenient.
When I posted Unconstitutional Limitations I actually hoped that my concerns were a bit overwrought…that the restrictions on group gatherings, and thus on religious gatherings, was going to be the extreme end of end of government violations of the Constitution. I hoped that we would make it through COVID-19 and then, as cooler heads prevailed, people would look back and realize that the actions taken during the scare were not okay and could not be permitted to happen again. Sadly, I was wrong.
In the past week, there have been more, and more egregious, examples of government overreach and constitutional violation by state and local governments. President Trump still seems to realize the constitutional limitations on the federal government and has even expressed them in explaining why he is not issuing a national stay-at-home order. Just yesterday, at his White House briefing, CNN’s Jeremy Diamond asked President Trump why he is not following the recommendations of Dr. Fauci and others and issuing such an order. “We have a thing called the Constitution, which I cherish, number one,” was Trump’s response. He did not stop there, though. He continued, regarding the eight governors that have not issued state-wide stay-at-home orders, “Number two, those governors, I know every one of them, they’re doing a great job. They’re being very, very successful with what they’re doing. And, as you know, I want governors to be running things. In some cases, we’ll supersede.” That is called federalism, and that is exactly how the United States is supposed to operate.
My own state’s governor, Kristi Noem, is one of those that has not issued such an order. When asked why, she said, “South Dakota is not New York City. The calls to apply for a one-size-fits-all approach to this problem is herd mentality. It’s not leadership.” She expressed her respect for the Constitution, and then said, “The people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety. They are the ones that are entrusted with expansive freedoms. They’re free to exercise their rights to work, to worship, and to play. Or to even stay at home, or to conduct social distancing.” It is indeed a sad day when it is newsworthy and even controversial for a governor to say that the people have been entrusted with “expansive freedoms” and are responsible for the how the utilize those freedoms.
Last Monday, Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of The River at Tampa Bay church, was arrested for “‘intentionally and repeatedly’ defying emergency orders mandating that people maintain social distance and stay at home,” according to the New York Times. The Hillsborough County sheriff announced that he had the arrest warrant and Howard-Browne turned himself in. He was freed less than an hour later after posting bond. The sheriff, Chad Chronister, said this regarding the arrest:
His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week in danger. Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.
As best I can tell from a very cursory exploration of The River at Tampa Bay’s web site, I do not agree with a lot of what they teach and practice. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that a pastor was arrested for exercising his constitutionally-granted rights to religion and assembly.
The good news is that the Hillsborough County Council recognized the dangerous ground upon which their sheriff had tread and voted on April 2 to reverse its order and recognize churches as essential. The mayor wanted to impose ten-person limits and six-foot distancing requirements on churches by the Council overruled her recommendation. Also, on April 1, Florida governor Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order 20-92, amending 20-91, and declaring religious worship as an “essential activity.” DeSantis said, “I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church. I’m certainly not going to do that.” Governor Greg Abbott issued a similar executive order on March 31, GA 14, which includes “religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship” as essential services. According to an article in The Guardian, Delaware, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia have also issued exemptions for religious gatherings and, as mentioned in the previous post, Michigan has exempted them, as well.
Robin Fretwell Wilson, Brian Smith and Tanner Bean authored the essay “Defiant Congregations in a Pandemic: Public Safety Precedes Religious Rights,” which can be found on the web site of the Canopy Forum. “Now is not the time to stand on our rights. It is not the time to pursue contentious religious freedom claims in the courthouse. Instead, it is a time to lead by example, as so many congregations and people of faith have done,” they wrote. I have to disagree. Congregations need to prayerfully and carefully consider whether or not to meet in person, and I am by no means recommending that all churches decide to do so. But it is absolutely the time to stand on our rights. It may not be the best time to file “contentious religious freedom claims in the courthouse” but if it comes to that then yes, such action should be taken. Hopefully, that is not likely to happen. Hillsborough County was facing a lawsuit over its arrest of Howard-Browne, and it chose to back down.
Some leaders, though, may choose to push the matter, and if they do, laying down and allowing our constitutional rights to be trampled is not what anyone should do. On
March 27, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said of churches and synagogues, “[Law enforcement] will inform them they need to stop the services and disperse. If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.” Permanently. Jeremy Dys of First Liberty Institute said, “The American people will tolerate a lot during a time of a national pandemic. They will not tolerate government threats to permanently close Houses of Worship.” Ken Ham, founder and president of Answers in Genesis, tweeted, “It’s a warning for the future when one person claims they have the power to close churches permanently. That’s what we’ve seen in China & Cuba.”
Thankfully, the backlash against de Blasio was swift. Kristen Waggoner, of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote an editorial for the New York Daily News entitled “Sorry, mayor, you can’t close churches permanently: De Blasio’s wild overreaction to houses of worship that buck social distancing.” News outlets all over the country reported on the threat and most of the stories included the remarks in opposition and even explanation as to why de Blasio could do no such thing.
There are other examples of government overreach this past week, too. They do not relate to religious freedom specifically, but they should be as alarming to anyone who loves the Constitution. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York said in his April 3 briefing,
I’m going to sign an executive order that says the state can take ventilators and PPE from institutions that don’t need them now and redeploy them to other parts of the state and other hospitals that do need them. Those institutions will either get their ventilator back or they will be reimbursed and paid for their ventilator so they can buy a new ventilator.
The Wall Street Journal was incredibly kind to Cuomo in its report on his briefing, headlining its story, “New York State to Shift Ventilators to Hospitals in Need.” Thankfully, the sub-heading was more accurate, reading, “Gov. Cuomo to sign order allowing state to take unused ventilators, masks from institutions.” Bob Lonsberry, of Syracuse’s 570 WSYR radio station ripped Cuomo’s announcement; his post started this way:
You’ve been triaged, upstate New York.
The governor put the black tag around your neck.
Some will live and some will die and, well, you don’t get to live.
That’s what Andy Cuomo’s decree of Friday means. Your ventilators go to his voters and when you get the COVID, well, good luck to you. If all goes well, your family can have a memorial service in a year or two, after the Chinese sell us the vaccine.
Maybe you think that’s an overreaction, but I imagine that if someone was promising to confiscate the ventilators from your local hospital you would be upset too.
And in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti encouraged Angelenos to snitch on anyone violating his Safer at Home order. At his March 31 briefing he said,
If any non-essential businesses continue to operate in violation of the stay at home order, we’re going to act to enforce the safer at home order and ensure their compliance. You know the old expression about snitches. Well, in this case, snitches get rewards.
He later said, “We want to thank you for turning folks in and making sure we are all safe.”
I don’t know what the rewards are, and I don’t want to know. What I do know is, encouraging people to spy on and report their neighbors sounds an awful lot like the U.S.S.R. I simply cannot imagine that that is the United States of America that anyone really wants to live in.
Shredded Constitution photo credit: Shutterstock.
Kristi Noem photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Public Domain .