Orthodox Jews, Catholic diocese sue New York over new COVID-19 restrictions

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, speaks at a press conference on coronavirus, Oct. 5, 2020.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, speaks at a press conference on coronavirus, Oct. 5, 2020. | Flickr/Governor Andrew Cuomo

Orthodox Jewish groups and a Roman Catholic diocese have filed lawsuits against New York State over restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court against New York, accusing Governor Andrew Cuomo of violating their religious freedom.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in a statement released Thursday that the recent executive orders by Cuomo “have left us with no other option than to go to court.”

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“Our churches have the capacity to accommodate many worshippers and to reset our attendance capacity to 10 people maximum in the red zone, and 25 people in the orange zone, when we have had no significant cases, impedes our right to worship and cannot stand,” stated DiMarzio.

“The State has completely disregarded the fact that our safety protocols have worked and it is an insult to once again penalize all those who have made the safe return to Church work.”

In a separate lawsuit, multiple Orthodox Jewish synagogues and rabbis argued that the restrictions interfered with their religious practices.

“Defendant’s Executive Order violates Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment in two separate ways, both independently sufficient to justify the temporary restraining order and all other equitable relief that they are requesting,” argued the complaint in part.

“First, Defendant’s restrictions are facially discriminatory toward religious practices when compared to similar secular activities … Second, Defendant’s explicit targeting of religious institutions and communities for these restrictions is a punitive attempt to infringe upon Plaintiffs’ religious services because of their religious nature.”

Earlier this week, Cuomo announced the creation of a “new cluster action initiative” aimed at areas of New York that were considered “hot spots” for infection.

These areas of high infection rates included Brooklyn and Queens, as well as Broome, Orange and Rockland Counties and would involve a set of new restrictions on gatherings.

The initiative divided up the areas into three zones — Red, Orange, and Yellow — with Red Zones prohibiting all mass gatherings and limiting houses of worship to 25% capacity, or 10 people maximum.  

The rules were aimed at being in effect for at least two weeks, with those sponsoring mass gatherings facing a possible $15,000 fine.

At a press conference on Monday, Cuomo threatened to close down synagogues and churches that did not comply with his recent executive orders on social distancing.

“We know religious institutions have been a problem,” said Cuomo. “If you do not agree to follow the rules, then we will close the institutions down. I am prepared to do that.

“The religious community has to agree to the rules and they have to agree that they are going to follow the rules. And they have to agree that they are going to be a full partner in the enforcement of the rules.”

Cuomo presented a situation in which “the rule is no more than 50% of the people in a black church, I want someone at the door when 50% enter the church, a person there who says to the pastor, you agree to follow the rules. That’s 50%. That’s it or we close it down.” 

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