DOJ pressed de Blasio on religious freedom before Geoffrey Berman ousting
The Justice Department urged New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to relax coronavirus rules for religious gatherings shortly before the Friday evening ouster of US Attorney Geoffrey Berman — and the letter was sent despite Berman’s refusal to sign it, The Post has learned.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Post from Justice Department and City Hall sources, compared the mayor’s orders “to break up numerous gatherings of the Jewish community” with his “support for and participation in recent protests.”
The letter was signed by civil rights division chief Eric Dreiband and sent at 5:22 p.m. Friday — hours before Berman’s termination. The mayor’s office acknowledged receipt in a reply email.
“To selectively enforce the [city’s coronavirus] Order to permit gatherings of more than 10 people for political protest yet deny similar gatherings for religious exercise would raise grave concerns under the Constitution,” Dreiband wrote. “Compliance with the First Amendment is not optional, and that Amendment protects both free exercise of religion and assembly rights.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told The Post that Attorney General William Barr “did not know [Berman] didn’t sign the letter” when he announced that Berman would be resigning.
Barr announced Berman’s resignation as US attorney for the Southern District of New York on Friday night. Berman then denied he had resigned, forcing Barr to fire him a day later. The Trump administration has nominated Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton to fill the post.
Earlier on Friday, Barr met with Berman in New York and offered him a new job leading the Justice Department’s civil division in Washington — one of the department’s top roles — and floated the possibility of him replacing Clayton as SEC chairman.
Berman had not been presidentially nominated as US attorney and was instead serving in a temporary capacity as a judicial appointee since early 2018.
Berman’s office has taken part in some investigations of people close to President Trump. But Trump administration officials said the shakeup had more to do with wanting to install Clayton in the post, which will require Senate approval.
The existence of a draft letter was first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Monday. According to the Journal, Berman “voiced strong objections to the letter, particularly its assertions that Mr. de Blasio imposed a double standard, and described the letter as a political stunt that would strain relations between his office and the city.”
In the letter, Dreiband noted large Jewish funerals were busted up by the NYPD, despite being outdoors like the anti-racism protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police. “The message to the public from New York City’s government appears to favor certain secular gatherings and disfavor religious gatherings,” the letter says.
In the Justice Department’s letter to de Blasio, Dreiband wrote, “As the City moves into Phase 2, the Department of Justice respectfully encourages you to reconsider your posture toward religious gatherings and, as necessary, work with Governor Cuomo to that end.”
In a statement Monday, Dreiband and eastern Michigan US Attorney Matthew Schneider, a department point person for local COVID-19 policies, said they were hopeful as New York moved to Phase Two of reopening from the pandemic, writing, “Mayor de Blasio provided much‑needed relief for New Yorkers” including by allowing up to 25 percent occupancy of religious buildings.
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