Bill de Blasio’s Tweets Raise Serious Concerns about Religious Freedom

Last week, after a ḥasidic funeral in Brooklyn—planned in coordination with municipal authorities—attracted a large number of attendees, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio not only sent police to disperse the crowd, but announced he was doing so with a tweet addressed to the “Jewish community.” Since then, there has been evidence that the city’s police are enforcing social-distancing guidelines more rigorously in ḥasidic neighborhoods than elsewhere. Related to the ensuing controversy is a larger constitutional question: to what extent may state and local authorities restrict religious gatherings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus without violating the First Amendment. Michael A. Helfand writes:

Part of the problem is that the Supreme Court has never quite been clear on the outer boundaries of what counts as targeting religion. In its landmark 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court explained that the prohibition required all laws to be both neutral and generally applied. This second requirement—general applicability—seemed to capture the notion that laws must be applied across the board to avoid targeting religion. One way to think about the requirement is that when a law has too many secular exceptions, but fails to make similar accommodations for religion, it helps unmask underlying discrimination.

While the lack of a religious exception might not prove intentional discrimination, the privileging of secular exceptions over religious exceptions might be seen as a form of implicit bias that is also constitutionally prohibited. This debate over how to view the requirement of generally applicability—does it prohibit overt discrimination or does it prohibit implicit bias as well—runs to the heart of many of the church lawsuits against stay-at-home orders.

If what the law cares about is intentional discrimination, states classifying houses of worship as nonessential—and thereby prohibiting them from holding worship services—are likely to overcome constitutional challenges. But if the law cares about how the doling out of limited exceptions suggests implicit bias, then stay-at-home orders may encounter judicial pushback.

Moreover, in a 2018 case the Supreme Court concluded that explicit statements of hostility toward a particular religion, or toward religion in general, on the part of officials or legislators can be used as evidence of a violation of neutrality. Therefore, writes Helfand:

One would think that any official concerned about the public-health [risks due to] COVID-19 would avoid making any statements that might be construed as evidencing religious discrimination. By choosing to do the exact opposite, de Blasio exposed any future enforcement actions he might take to legal scrutiny, undermining his ability to successfully achieve his purported objective of protecting the public’s health. In light of the law’s relative clarity when it comes to the constitutional demands of religious neutrality, de Blasio’s tweets become even more irresponsible.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Anti-Semitism, Bill de Blasio, Coronavirus, Freedom of Religion, Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution


Iran’s Program of Subversion and Propaganda in the Caucasus

In the past week, Iranian proxies and clients have attacked Israel from the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran also has substantial military assets in Iraq and Syria—countries over which it exercises a great deal of control—which could launch significant attacks on Israel as well. Tehran, in addition, has stretched its influence northward into both Azerbaijan and Armenia. While Israel has diplomatic relations with both of these rival nations, its relationship with Baku is closer and involves significant military and security collaboration, some of which is directed against Iran. Alexander Grinberg writes:

Iran exploits ethnic and religious factors in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to further its interests. . . . In Armenia, Iran attempts to tarnish the legitimacy of the elected government and exploit the church’s nationalist position and tensions between it and the Armenian government; in Azerbaijan, the Iranian regime employs outright terrorist methods similar to its support for terrorist proxies in the Middle East [in order to] undermine the regime.

Huseyniyyun (Islamic Resistance Movement of Azerbaijan) is a terrorist militia made up of ethnic Azeris and designed to fight against Azerbaijan. It was established by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps . . . in the image of other pro-Iranian militias. . . . Currently, Huseyniyyun is not actively engaged in terrorist activities as Iran prefers more subtle methods of subversion. The organization serves as a mouthpiece of the Iranian regime on various Telegram channels in the Azeri language. The main impact of Huseyniyyun is that it helps spread Iranian propaganda in Azerbaijan.

The Iranian regime fears the end of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan because this would limit its options for disruption. Iranian outlets are replete with anti-Semitic paranoia against Azerbaijan, accusing the country of awarding its territory to Zionists and NATO. . . . Likewise, it is noteworthy that Armenian nationalists reiterate hideous anti-Semitic tropes that are identical to those spouted by the Iranians and Palestinians. Moreover, leading Iranian analysts have no qualms about openly praising [sympathetic] Armenian clergy together with terrorist Iran-funded Azeri movements for working toward Iranian goals.

Read more at Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

More about: Azerbaijan, Iran, Israeli Security