The current coronavirus, known as COVID–19, has become a pandemic. In the United States, the epicenter for the virus is New York City (NYC). As of March 30, 2020, there are 38,087 known cases in America’s largest city,[1] whereas, New York State (NYS) has a total of 66,497 with new cases in 43 Counties.[2]  This means that more than half of the known cases in NYS are concentrated in NYC.

In response to the problem, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that NYS will “shelter-in-place” until April 15th.[3] This means that the governor’s executive order will close all non-essential businesses at least until April 15th.[4]

Continued testing for the Coronavirus indicates more infections than previously thought. NYC, and more particularly Mayor Bill de Blasio, have been slow to respond to the restrictions. He made the statement on March 10th that “For the vast majority of New Yorkers, life is going on pretty normally right now.”[5]

The Virus

The problem with the Mayor’s slow response was that the virus gained momentum. March 10th showed the number of known cases in NYC at 32 but by March 30th there is a staggering 38,087 known cases. Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and all of NYC now realize that they have a crisis of epic proportions. According to the Center for Disease Control, as of March 30th, there are 140,904 known cases in America. These facts mean that NYS has nearly half of all the known cases and NYC alone has slightly less than a third of all the cases in the United States, making it the epicenter.

In an effort to enforce social distancing, Mayor de Blasio, threatened to close permanently buildings of churches and synagogues if they do not comply with the social distancing order. De Blasio stated, “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.” He further stated, “If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”[6]

The Mayor

De Blasio’s current harsh enforcement policy targeting religious communities seems out of step with his earlier reluctance to take the virus seriously with a speedy and suitable response in proportion to the potential level of the threat. To be fair, Mayor de Blasio did not blame the NYC religious community, but he did not restrict non-religious people from meeting. De Blasio issued a “bully” threat against those who worship. The Mayor may very well try to enforce the “religious” restriction, but it will probably result in a Supreme Court challenge.

The request to practice social distancing, by refraining from public worship gatherings, does seem reasonable. The Coronavirus must be stopped before further damage is done to both the people and the economy. Since any large gathering creates an environment in which the disease may easily spread, the executive order to “shelter-in-place” is practical.

Religious Liberty

The Mayor’s threat of permanent closure of religious buildings is simply a violation of the First Amendment of the American Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”[7]

By means of the first amendment, the US Government has restricted itself from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The federal government has no power to restrict religious activity. The state of New York ratified the constitution on July 26, 1788.[8] Their ratification is an acceptance of the benefits and limitations of federal governmental practice.[9]

Mayor De Blasio knows that he has “over-reached” by threatening “to take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”[10] NYC does not have authorization from the US Constitution or the NYS Constitution to make threats or, much more, to undertake such unwarranted action. The Mayor’s statements are unconstitutional in scope.

Conclusion

It is not wise to meet in a public worship service during the pandemic. The truth of that matter is that neither the President, NYS Governor, nor the NYC Mayor have asked for these restrictions in order to “close down churches.” These restrictions were adopted to stop the spread of a deadly virus. All citizens should respect the restrictions along with their intentions.

Christians are called on by Christ to honor governmental authorities (Romans 13:1, 5). The government is not seeking to replace Christ nor remove him in the American society. In fact, the civil government is fulfilling its Biblical role in “doing good” (Romans 13:1, 4) for its citizens. Scripture informs Christians of their obligation to government and the Lord requires obedience to the governmental authorities especially if they are not permanently restricting religion.

The economist Friedrich August Hayek, in his work, The Road to Serfdom, gives insight into the rationale of religious freedom yielding to other rights within the community. Hayek states:

individual freedom cannot be reconciled with the supremacy of one single purpose to which the whole society must be entirely and permanently subordinated. The only exception is war and other temporary disasters…it is sensible temporarily to sacrifice freedom in order to make it more secure in the future.[11]

The Christian, and other religious groups, who voluntarily yield their rights for the betterment of the community should expect that those yielded rights be respected and reinstated when the “temporary disasters” are no longer a threat to the lives of the community.

The Mayor must learn to respect the Christian citizens of NYC and cease his intimidating threats to close their worship sites. Andrew T. Walker, associate professor of Christian ethics and apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, admonishes politicians when he states, “An important function of religion in our society is to help secure the rights that make democracy possible. To do this, religion must be given freedom to flourish in order to communicate truths that are essential to our democratic order.”[12] The Mayor may not realize the impact he is having on the NYC Christian citizens, but they are the very ones who are praying for God’s protection of leaders, the nation, and the world in the midst of this pandemic.

[1] https://www1.NYC.gov/assets/doh/downloads/pdf/imm/covid-19-daily-data-summary.pdf

[2] https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/amid-ongoing-covid-19-pandemic-governor-cuomo-announces-statewide-public-private-hospital-plan

[3] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-shelter-in-place-new-york-city-san-francisco-what/

[4] https://ny.curbed.com/2020/3/20/21187022/coronavirus-new-york-shutdown-shelter-in-place

[5] https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/bill-de-blasio-had-his-worst-week-as-new-york-city-mayor.html

[6] https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/mar/30/bill-de-blasio-churches-caught-holding-services-du/

[7] https://nccs.net/blogs/americas-founding-documents/bill-of-rights-amendments-1-10

[8] http://blog.nyhistory.org/ontd-new-yorks-ratification-of-the-constitution/

[9] The ratification of the 14th amendment led to the doctrine of the “Incorporation” of the bill of rights, meaning, that the original bill of rights now applies to the several states and not just to the Federal government.

[10] https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/mar/30/bill-de-blasio-churches-caught-holding-services-du/

[11] F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents, vol. 2, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek (New York: Routledge, 2007), 213.

[12] Andrew T. Walker, Religious Liberty and the Public Square, in First Freedom, 2nd edition, eds. Jason G. Duesing, Thomas White, and Malcolm B. Yarnell (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 146.