Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz is urging the Justice Department “to closely monitor New York City” for potential religious discrimination amid the pandemic after its mayor singled out “the Jewish community” following the breakup of a large gathering of Orthodox Jews.
In a letter sent Thursday to Attorney General Bill Barr, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Cruz lauded a Justice Department memo issued this week asking federal prosecutors to keep watch on state and local orders crafted to help stop the coronavirus that risk infringing on individuals’ civil liberties.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chastising of Jews after a local funeral drew a crowd of thousands, Cruz added, raises questions about whether one faith “is being singled out for special burdens.”
“This is dangerous in and of itself,” Cruz, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Constitution subcommittee, wrote to Barr. “But it is especially dangerous to single out the Jewish community in a city that is experiencing a substantial rise in violent anti-Semitism.”
“The Department of Justice should not hesitate to closely monitor New York City to ensure that the mayor’s rhetoric does not translate into constitutional violations,” Cruz added.
The mayor’s press secretary, Freddi Goldstein, responded to the letter by noting that de Blasio “has apologized to anyone he offended by his word choice. That was certainly not his intention.”
De Blasio “cannot stand idly by if there are gatherings that pose a risk to New Yorkers’ health and safety,” Goldstein added by email in response to Cruz’s letter, which sought greater attention to all local officials who might single out specific religions “under the guise of protecting public health.”
More than 100 Jewish leaders and organizations released a letter to de Blasio Thursday to air “our anger and disappointment at your scapegoating the Jewish community” in the aftermath of the funeral breakup. The synagogue that organized the funeral had tried to plan for staging in accordance with social distancing rules.
Public debate over the balance between protecting public health and safeguarding civil liberties has simmered since the first state and local closure orders emerged last month, in the first days of the pandemic. At least a dozen court challenges filed as the coronavirus has spread have alleged incursions on religious freedom, including a Mississippi challenge to a local restriction on drive-in church that the Justice Department weighed in on, supporting the church.
De Blasio sparked criticism from conservatives and Christians last month when he first waded into the issue of restricting faith gatherings during the pandemic. The mayor warned then that religious services held in violation of public health orders would be shut down, adding that the houses of worship holding them risked punishment that could include permanent closure.
Cruz first took aim at the Democratic mayor for those remarks earlier this month on his podcast.
“Who … are you to permanently shut a church or synagogue down?” the Republican senator said in reference to de Blasio’s warning. Cruz added that he had shifted his attendance to virtual worship services during the pandemic and saw merit to limiting public gatherings.