There have been accusations of First Amendment violations in orders that prohibited church gatherings due to Coronavirus. Some have claimed that those orders violated religious freedoms because they included churches. Those people were wrong, but now New York Mayor Bill De Blasio has gone a step beyond what the law allows.
In a televised address, De Blasio told New Yorkers, “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. 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.”
De Blasio then said that law enforcement had been instructed “if they see worship services going on they will go to the officials of that congregation and they will inform them that they need to stop the services and disperse. If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
To be clear, quarantines and orders limiting public gatherings are both legal and constitutional. The understanding of the need for quarantines goes back beyond the understanding of germ theory. The CDC notes on its site that the word “quarantine” dates back to the Middle Ages and literally means “40 days,” which coincidentally, is about how long it’s going to take to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In early American history, quarantines were instituted by both the colonial governments and the fledgling government of the United States. Federal action today is justifiable under the Interstate Commerce Clause, the General Welfare Clause and the Public Health Service Act.
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