Federal appeals court rules against New York COVID restrictions on religious gatherings

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, speaks at a press conference about coronavirus, Oct. 5, 2020.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, speaks at a press conference about coronavirus, Oct. 5, 2020. | Flickr/Governor Andrew Cuomo
The federal Appeals Court for the 2nd Circuit has ruled in favor of religious groups, blocking the state of New York's restrictions on gatherings that were enacted to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

The federal court held in a unanimous 3-0 decision that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, two synagogues, and Agudath Israel, an Orthodox Jewish group, had their free exercise rights violated because of Governor Andrew Cuomo's attendance caps that were issued in early October. Cuomo's policy permitted to the lesser of 10 people or 25% capacity in zones where COVID-19 risk was the highest and 25 people or 33% capacity in the less risky zones. 

The ruling ordered that the caps had to be enjoined while the case is pending, which means that the state cannot enforce such caps against any house of worship. The appellate court remanded Agudath Israel's case to the district court in Brooklyn, ordering the lower court to reconsider whether the capacity limits passed constitutional muster under the "strict scrutiny" standard. 

Commenting on the ruling on Twitter Monday, religious liberty law firm Becket noted that the strict scrutiny standard is the highest standard known to constitutional law and that "it would be better to stop trying to restrict synagogues, churches, and mosques." 

"Gov. Cuomo should read the writing on the wall and let New York join the 33 states that do not cap or put percentage limits on in-person worship," Becket said. 

Judge Michael Park said in the court's opinion that “no public interest is served by maintaining an unconstitutional policy when constitutional alternatives are available to achieve the same goal.”

Cuomo said in response to the result that the ruling had no practical effect since some of the restrictions were lifted as coronavirus cases diminished. 

The appellate court ruling comes on the heels of a similar result from the United States Supreme Court, which in a 5-4 decision just prior to Thanksgiving held that the New York COVID rules struck at the heart of the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom. 

The high court ruled that "even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”

Avi Schick, an attorney for Agudath Israel, said the Monday decision “will be felt way beyond the COVID context. It is a clear statement ... that government can’t disfavor religious conduct merely because it sees no value in religious practice.”

Likewise, the lawyer for the Roman Catholic diocese, Randy Mastro, expressed that he was grateful for the result and said the diocese will welcome worshipers to services under protocols that keep parishioners safe. 

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