New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s assertion that churches and synagogues will be “permanently” closed if they refuse to obey a stay-at-home order banning large gatherings in light of the coronavirus pandemic has drawn the ire of national Christian leaders.
At a March 27 press briefing, de Blasio singled out Christian and Jewish congregations and threatened that agents would shut down their houses of worship if they held in-person services.
"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.
The Democrat mayor further warned that if the congregations refuse to disperse, the city would "take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
“It's the last thing I would like to do because I understand how important people's faiths are to them and we need our faiths in this time of crisis. But we do not need gatherings that will endanger people,” de Blasio argued. “No faith tradition endorses anything that endangers the members of that faith.”
Tony Perkins, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Christian conservative activist organization Family Research Council, criticized de Blasio’s comments on Twitter.
“De Blasio’s incendiary & unconstitutional threat to permanently shut down churches and synagogues must be retracted or corrected if it was a misstatement,” Perkins, who had previously spoken out against churches holding worship services during the outbreak, wrote in a tweet.
“This type of religious hostility is what fuels non-compliance because it reveals a motive beyond public safety.”
Ronnie Floyd, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, called de Blasio’s remarks a “matter of great concern.”
"The First Amendment states that there should be no law that prohibits the free exercise of religion and constitutional protections are unchanged by current circumstances,” Floyd, the former pastor of Cross Church in Arkansas and former SBC president, said in a statement to Fox News.
Evangelical conservative author Joel Rosenberg, who has organized meetings between U.S. evangelical leaders and political leaders in the Middle East in recent years to discuss religious freedom, wrote on Twitter that de Blasio’s comments “overreached.”
“He should apologize and walk this statement back immediately,” Rosenberg contended. “No government official should threaten to close churches and synagogues permanently.”
As of Thursday morning, there are over 47,400 confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York City with over 1,374 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine's Coronavirus Resource Center.
Bart Barber, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, wrote on Twitter that mayors do not have “the authority to suspend the First Amendment” no matter how “trying” the times are.
“Please clarify or correct your threat to close churches and synagogues permanently if they do not comply with your demands,” Barber requested.
Across the country, a small minority of pastors and churches are continuing to hold in-person religious services despite social distancing orders in their states. Meanwhile, many congregations are holding services online only.
Just days after de Blasio’s remarks, pastor Rodney Howard-Browne in Hillsborough County, Florida, was arrested for violating the state’s order banning large worship gatherings.
Howard-Browne, the leader of Revival International Ministries and The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa, is being represented by the Christian conservative legal group Liberty Counsel. Liberty Counsel gained media attention in 2015 when it defended Kentucky clerk Kim Davis after she was jailed for refusing to provide gay marriage licenses.
“The fact is that churches, including our client The River Church of Tampa, Florida, can and are obeying safety guidelines … but the enemy wants our churches shut down,” Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement.
In another release, Liberty Counsel asked why it is OK for businesses like Home Depot, Lowes or Hobby Lobby to still operate while churches cannot.
“Churches have a First Amendment right to exist and assemble, but the commercial businesses do not,” the Liberty Counsel release argues.
“The Home Depots in Hillsborough County look like they’re giving out free merchandise. They’re packed with people. Truckloads are arriving to deliver such ‘essential items’ as potted plants. There is no six-foot separation and there is no special effort at all to keep people safe. Yet, The River at Tampa Bay Church spent $100,000 on special equipment and enforced a six-foot separation throughout the sanctuary and lobby.”
In March, Perkins warned against churches having in-person services.
“At this point, holding public church gatherings in the midst of a public health crisis is not a defense of religious freedom — it is a defiance of common sense and the care of your congregation,” Perkins wrote in a tweet. “Spread the Good News, not the virus!”