Federal court permanently blocks New York's restrictions on houses of worship

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update from the Red Room at the State Capitol on January 29, 2021.
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update from the Red Room at the State Capitol on January 29, 2021. | Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

A federal judge permanently blocked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s controversial restrictions on indoor worship gatherings that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction against last November. 

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto, a George W. Bush appointee, granted a  permanent injunction to block Cuomo's COVID-19 guidelines as applied to all houses of worship listed in red and orange zones throughout the state. 

In red zones, houses of worship were subject to a limit of 25% maximum occupancy or 10 people, whichever is fewer. Meanwhile, places of worship in orange zones were subject to a limit of 33% maximum occupancy or 25 people, whichever is fewer. 

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Cuomo issued the order last October and extended the restrictions five times without modification on houses of worship.  

The restrictions were contested in court by religious bodies, including the Agudath Israel of America and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. Plaintiffs argued that the rules violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 

On Nov. 25, 2020, the nation’s highest court temporarily blocked the order in a case brought by the diocese, arguing that the rules were not “neutral” or “generally applicable” because “essential” businesses and some “non-essential” businesses were not subject to the same restrictions. 

The Supreme Court reasoned that “fixed person capacity limits must satisfy ‘strict scrutiny,’” Matsumoto wrote in her injunction. 

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the Agudath Israel case back to the lower court “with directions to grant a preliminary injunction against enforcement of Executive Order.” 

On Jan. 19, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. 

In light of the rulings, the state “agreed to an injunction against enforcement of the 25% and 33% capacity limits in red and orange zones,” Matsumoto stated in the order. She added that the state “has not presented additional evidence to supplement what was submitted in opposition to the Plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.”

“Subsequently, Defendant’s counsel has represented in status conferences that before the end of February 2021 EO 202.68 will be amended to remove houses of worship,” the order explains.

Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Agudath Israel and affiliated synagogues as part of the lawsuit, said that it is not every day that a governor asks a federal court to block his own guidelines. 

“[B]ut that is exactly what Governor Cuomo asked for,” Rassbach stressed. 

“The Governor is desperately trying to avoid testimony showing that his orders shutting down synagogues and churches weren’t based on public health, but on politics. The court’s order is good news for the synagogues, churches, and other houses of worship of New York.”

The court order comes after the New York Times reported earlier this month that several state health officials resigned amid disagreements with Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic and vaccine rollout. According to the report, Cuomo urged health officials to match their health guidelines with his announcements. 

According to the newspaper, the state’s health department was not involved in final decisions on policies that based business closures on color-coded “microclusters.” Becket notes that the policy led to the shutting down of houses of worship throughout Brooklyn. 

“We welcome Governor Cuomo’s surrender, even if it took him way too long to figure out he was acting illegally,” Rassbach said. “And we hope he learned something along the way. If he writes another COVID book, maybe he can give it the title I Did It My Way—And Boy Was I Wrong!

The state’s request for the court to block the restrictions followed Cuomo’s comments from November when he called the Supreme Court’s decision to issue a temporary injunction indicative of the court’s conservative bent following the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barret. 

At the time, the governor said the decision is “irrelevant” and “moot” because “the Brooklyn zone no longer exists as a red zone.” 

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