New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was under pressure to ease COVID-19 restrictions for religious groups before US Attorney Geoffrey Berman was fired. Berman reportedly refused to sign the letter before his termination.
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband and U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider for the Eastern District of Michigan, who are overseeing the Justice Department’s effort to monitor state and local policies relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, issued the following statement:
“Following action by the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Mayor de Blasio provided much‑needed relief for New Yorkers by moving New York City to Phase 2 of its reopening plan. Under Phase 2, in addition to the opening of various secular establishments, including outdoor dining and in‑store retail, houses of worship can reopen to 25% of their indoor capacity.
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.”
Last week, the Justice Department wrote Mayor de Blasio to express the concern that New York City was permitting large gatherings for political protest while not permitting in-person religious gatherings when the Constitution’s First Amendment protects both free speech rights and religious exercise.
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.