The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Islam in New York and Coronavirus


From a Friday story in The Blaze:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday that the city will take steps to provide for its Muslim community amid the coronavirus by distributing "over half a million meals" during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan….

"One of Ramadan's most noble callings is to feed the hungry," de Blasio said Thursday during a press briefing. "To remember to be there for those in need. And that is now harder than ever now that people can't go to their mosques."

He had a different tone for Christians and Jews

"We all wish that the celebrations of Easter and Passover could have been so different," de Blasio said during the briefing.

However, many Christian and Jewish New Yorkers may find that statement unsettling, given the mayor's harsh warning for the faithful from those religions at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the city.

You may remember that de Blasio threatened to permanently close churches and synagogues that dared gather together in violation of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's shelter-in-place order….

This is not the first time that New York officials have appeared to give preferential treatment to Muslims in the state over Christians and Jews.

Earlier this week, TheBlaze reported on a New York mosque that remains open for daily prayers in the upstate even as the state's current executive order broadly bans all "non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason." …

I looked into this, and there seems to be no basis for suggesting that de Blasio is preferring Muslims over Christians and Jews. The Ramadan meal program seems to be part of a general program that distributes free meals, including normal meals for people who have no religious dietary preferences, kosher meals for those who prefer kosher, and halal meals for those who prefer halal. The plan is to distribute 25 million free meals in April and May, apparently, so it's not that odd that 2% of those would be halal, especially since Muslims make up an estimated 9% of New York's population.

Nor is there any Establishment Clause barrier to the government offering people food that is compatible with their religious preferences. Just as a cafeteria at a public university or a workplace that has many Jewish or Muslim students or employees might have kosher or halal options, or state-run liquor stores can stock kosher wines, so public free meal programs can have kosher or halal options (which of course anybody will be able to eat).

As to the threats of shuttering houses of worship that remained open in defiance of the New York City closure order, I've seen no indication that mosques would have been treated any differently. As I understand de Blasio's threat, it was in response to specific talk of some churches and synagogues defying the closure orders; perhaps it was an overreaction, but I don't think there was any suggestion that New York City mosques would be treated differently. Here is a transcript of de Blasio's statement, so you can see the context:

We've had extraordinary support from the leaders of major Christian denominations. 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. A small number, a small number of religious communities, specific churches, specific synagogues are unfortunately not paying attention to this guidance even though it's been so widespread. So, I want to say to all those who are preparing 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.

I don't say that with any joy. It's the last thing I would like to do because I understand how important people's faiths are to them, and we need our faiths in this time of crisis, but we do not need gatherings that will endanger people. No faith tradition endorses anything that endangers the members of that faith. So, the NYPD, Fire Department, Buildings Department, everyone has been instructed that if they see worship services going on, they will go to the officials of that congregation, they'll inform them 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. Again, that will begin this weekend.

On the other hand, the Blaze story may be correct that a mosque upstate, in Syracuse, may be remaining open (, Patrick Lohmann). Apparently it is trying hard to get the air properly filtered, and the surfaces disinfected, and

About 10 worshippers in masks are allowed in at a time, though rarely do that many show up. They stand far apart from each other as they follow a prayer leader standing on a plastic-covered prayer rug.

Nonetheless, this seems to violate the New York state shutdown order, and of course Syracuse authorities need to deal with it the same way they would deal with similar small meetings at churches and synagogues. If any of you know more about the Syracuse situation, please let me know; but I can say with confidence that, of all things that might be Mayor de Blasio's fault, this isn't one of them.