Justice Department raps NYC mayor De Blasio for singling out Orthodox Jews

Justice Department fires off letter to NYC mayor saying his allowing of mass protests while restricting religious services is unconstitutional.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

The largest American ultra-orthodox organization said Wednesday they were pleased that the Department of Justice had intervened on their behalf to pressure New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to lift restrictions on organized Jewish prayer services.

Although New York City had clamped down on organized gatherings and had only loosened restrictions to allow 10 people in a synagogue, the Orthodox Jewish community took exception when de Blasio himself participated with thousands of people at recent demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd.

“Agudath Israel has been advocating for religious freedoms throughout the pandemic,” the organization said in a prepared statement.

“Over the past few weeks, Agudath Israel has been heavily involved in two lawsuits protesting New York State’s violation of First Amendment rights, one to prevent the closure of overnight camps and the other to protest the continued restrictions on houses of worship.”

The letter to de Blasio from Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Eric Dreiband cautioned the mayor over his restricting religious gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, while at the same time encouraging mass demonstrations that had no social distancing.

“Your support for peaceful assembly and speech follows the best of our nation’s traditions,” Dreiband wrote, but then went on to say “the first amendment also protects the free exercise of religion.”

“In light of your support for and participation in recent protests in New York City, the message to the public from New York City’s government appears to favor certain secular gatherings and
disfavor religious gatherings,” Dreiband said.

He emphasized that de Blasio’s decision to “selectively enforce” health orders by allowing more than 10 people for political protests but deny similar gatherings for religious exercise “would raise grave concerns under the Constitution.”

“Compliance with the first amendment is not optional, and that amendment protects both free exercise of religion and assembly rights,” Dreiband told the mayor.

In April, Jewish officials were outraged when de Blasio threatened action after a large Jewish funeral, saying the mayor had singled them out.

Agudath Israel officials said they appreciated the DOJ acknowledgement of the “incongruous behavior of Mayor de Blasio.”

“Religious freedom is one of the rights granted to us in this great country and is the reason the Jewish community – and every religious community – can thrive here today,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel.

“We hope that our government leaders will acknowledge this fact and ensure that religious freedoms are fully and properly protected,” Zweibel added.