[guest post by Dana]
Here are two troubling stories that raise questions about Constitutional freedoms during a pandemic. The first story raises the question of whether our right to freely assemble can be temporarily suspended during a pandemic, and the second story reveals a disturbingly authoritarian urge by an elected official trying to control the spread of coronavirus in hard-hit NYC.
First, a pastor in Florida was arrested for holding church services with up to 500 people in attendance, in spite of new coronavirus restrictions put in place. He showed no remorse for his decision, rather he blamed the media:
Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was booked on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violation of public health rules after flouting social distancing orders at The River at Tampa Bay church.
Howard-Browne…has been an outspoken opponent of social distancing requirements, claiming his church has machines that can stop the coronavirus and vowing to personally cure the state of Florida himself.
“His reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk, and thousands of residents who may interact with them this week, in danger,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at the press conference.
Howard-Browne did not respond to an immediate request for comment. He turned himself in to a neighboring sheriff’s office, was booked and released within 40 minutes, according to jail records.
On a Facebook broadcast on Monday night, Howard-Browne said, “I pray for the sheriff. He’s a good man,” and blamed the media for pressuring law enforcement to take action against him.
Efforts had been made to warn the pastor about holding services:
Friday, Sheriff Chronister said, deputies had tried to speak to Howard-Browne on at least two separate occasions about the “dangerous environment” the church was creating. He said HCSO command staff went to the east Tampa church, but they were advised by church leaders and legal staff that Howard-Browne was refusing to see them and also refusing to cancel the Sunday church services.
Chronister stressed that the warrant was not an attack on religious freedom and noted there are other Tampa Bay-area churches who are following the social distancing guidelines set by the CDC. He said his concern now is whether the novel coronavirus may spread following the crowded services.
“I was appalled and also frightened at the fact that those individuals [were] thinking and believing they are doing the right thing. How many people are they going to infect if they have COVID-19?” Chronister asked. “There is nothing more important than faith especially during a pandemic, but like every other church here in the Bay Area, do it responsibly.”
(There is reason to be concerned: Just days after a funeral took place in Georgia, with 200 mourners in attendance, a devastating outbreak of coronavirus swept through the small town.)
A couple of notes: Because Florida’s Gov. DeSantis has rejected issuing a statewide stay-at-home order, instead issuing an order only for residents in Southeast Florida, individual counties are instituting their own coronavirus restriction orders.
Also, Pastor Howard-Brown claimed that social distancing rules were observed during the service, and that they had “13 machines that basically kill[ed] every virus in the place.”
In the second story, Mayor Bill DeBlasio threatened to permanently shut down various houses of worship if they continue to violate New York City’s coronavirus restrictions on holding religious services:
“We’ve had extraordinary, across the board rabbinical support from all the different elements of the Jewish community and the same is true of other faiths as well,” de Blasio said in his Friday news briefing, according to The Jewish Press.
Some synagogues, however, are still holding minyanim, gatherings of 10 worshipers or more, to hold prayer services.
“A small number of religious communities, specific churches and specific synagogues, are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance even though it’s so widespread,” de Blasio said.
“I want to say to all those who are preparing for the potential of religious services this weekend: If you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church, and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services,” he warned, however admitting that he does not “say this with joy.”
“I understand how important people’s faiths are to them, and we need our faith in this time of crisis. But we do not need gatherings that will endanger people.”
The mayor called on religious citizens, asking that anyone who witnesses services taking place to report to the congregation’s officials and request them to stop services. Should that not be enough, the authorities may “need to take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
It is preposterous that DeBlasio believes he can permanently close down the houses of worship that violate the city’s restrictions on holding church services. Just under what and whose authority does the Mayor think that this can be done?
[Ed. I believe the headline at the Jerusalem Post, which I linked to, is misleading. The story makes clear that DeBlasio wasn’t singling out synagogues, but he clearly and specifically said “A small number of religious communities, specific churches and specific synagogues...]