Southern Baptist leaders have called for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to change his handling of religious groups after his second set of threatening comments in barely a month during the COVID-19 pandemic.
De Blasio oversaw the scattering of reportedly hundreds of people gathered for the funeral of a Jewish rabbi April 28 in Brooklyn, then threatened on Twitter to have people arrested in the future. His response to the Hasidic Jewish gathering followed his March 27 warning that buildings of churches and other religious groups might be closed permanently if they continue to gather for corporate worship.
After the evening funeral gathering was dispersed, de Blasio wrote on Twitter, “Something absolutely unacceptable happened in Williamsburg tonite: a large funeral gathering in the middle of this pandemic. When I heard, I went there myself to ensure the crowd was dispersed. And what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus.”
Six minutes later, he tweeted, “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), told Baptist Press (BP) he is “fully supportive of civil authorities taking measures to protect their communities in light of this pandemic. But that’s not what this is.
“Threats against religious communities are uncalled for, especially the way the mayor has chosen here,” Moore said in a written statement. “It is all the more concerning given last week was Holocaust Memorial Day, and he yet has decided to single out the Jewish community with these disturbing comments.”
ERLC Executive Vice President Daniel Patterson, who has spoken to many pastors about religious liberty concerns during the pandemic, said, “Times like these call for seriousness and statesmanship from our leaders. The mayor, unfortunately, is demonstrating neither in his recent comments. No one is served by saber-rattling.
“The simple reality is that churches and faith communities across the country have been at the forefront of carefulness and cooperation,” Patterson told BP in written remarks, “and good things happen for our communities when public officials meet these efforts with appreciation rather than ill-temperedness.”
De Blasio received criticism from Jewish organizations and at least one City Council member for singling out Jews, but the mayor denied the charges.
Chaim Deutsch, who represents a part of Brooklyn that has a large Orthodox Jewish population, said on Twitter, “This has to be a joke,” The New York Times reported.
“Every neighborhood has people who are being non-compliant,” Deutsch tweeted. “To speak to an entire ethnic group as though we are all flagrantly violating precautions is offensive, it’s stereotyping, and it’s inviting antisemitism.”
At a news conference April 29, de Blasio said he spoke the night before “out of real distress that people’s lives were in danger before my eyes and I was not going to tolerate it. So I regret if the way I said it in any way gave people a feeling of being treated the wrong way. That was not my intention.
“[T]his kind of gathering has happened in only a few places and it cannot continue,” he said. “It’s endangering the lives of people in the community.”
Critics of the mayor’s Twitter comments said thousands of people in the city had gathered the same day as the funeral to watch a military flyover, according to The Times.
Meetings of any size are prohibited in New York state during the pandemic, and officials have broken up several religious gatherings in the city, including weddings and funerals in large Jewish communities, The Times reported.
In his March 27 briefing, de Blasio said law enforcement officials have been instructed to warn congregational leaders when they discover worship services taking place in violation of the city’s restrictions on gatherings during the pandemic.
“They will inform them they need to stop the services and disperse,” the mayor said. “If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
De Blasio’s warning drew expressions of concern from Baptists, who have been at the forefront of advocating for religious freedom since the founding of the country.
“For any leader to threaten to close a church permanently is a matter of great concern,” Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd said at the time. “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.
“While I would encourage churches to honor requests regarding public meetings in the attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, this is an opportunity to show neighbor love rather than for the establishment of state authority over religious exercise.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)