On Sunday, March 29, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that religious congregations that continue to meet during the COVID-19 crisis will be told to cease and to disperse, and if they do not comply they will be fined and could potentially face permanent closure.
De Blasio has set a dangerous precedent with this threat. While most Americans agree that we should adhere to guidelines for social distancing and sheltering at home in order to protect us all, no government official has the authority to punish us for gathering, particularly to worship. They can ask, plead, insist and beg, but they cannot do what de Blasio has said he will do.
America has something called the Constitution, which is the very foundation upon which our nation and its government was built. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It also states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
While government leaders do have the power to temporarily ban public gatherings during a state of emergency, such bans must apply to all gatherings equally. However, they have no power to single out religious congregations. De Blasio’s threat to permanently close churches as a punishment for assembling is blatantly unconstitutional.
I’ve been reading social media responses to this situation, many from those who want to see churches punished. They feel that fining and closing churches is justified because everyone should be equally concerned about spreading the virus and that those who gather publicly in defiance of government sheltering guidelines should be held accountable. But to what extent? If leaders like de Blasio get away with targeting and punishing churches, then the Constitution and the First Amendment become worthless, because then in the future government can defy the Constitution whenever it claims doing so is necessary. It means we as Americans can no longer rely on the Constitution to protect us from tyranny, which is why it was written in the first place.
So, whether or not you think the few Christians, Jews, or Muslims who are still worshipping together should not do so during these troubled times, the Constitution must stand and must continue protecting their rights to assemble. Each one of us should be fighting to keep the Constitution intact, because the next time de Blasio threatens to defy it, it may be your rights at stake.
Laurisa White Reyes