NY officials can’t impose greater restrictions on religious services than businesses, protests: judge

Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo (pictured),New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont (screen) announced a joint incoming travel advisory that all individuals traveling from states with significant community spread of COVID-19 quarantine for a 14-day on June 24, 2020. |

A federal judge has blocked New York officials from enforcing state restrictions on outdoor and indoor religious gatherings that are stricter than those imposed on comparable secular entities.

U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe issued a preliminary injunction Friday on behalf of two Catholic priests and three rabbis who are suing Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The injunction prevents New York from “enforcing any indoor gathering limitations against plaintiffs greater than imposed for Phase 2 industries” and “enforcing any limitation for outdoor gatherings,” provided that the houses of worship adhere to social distancing guidelines.  

“The balance of hardships tips in plaintiffs’ favor. Indeed, in the absence of an injunction, plaintiffs’ religious activities will be burdened and continue to be treated less favorably than comparable secular activities,” Sharpe wrote.

“An injunction, on the other hand, does not undercut defendants’ interest in controlling the spread of COVID-19, provided that plaintiffs abide by social distancing guidance.”

The judge also took issue with Cuomo and de Blasio voicing their support for thousands gathering at Black Lives Matter protests, noting the double standard.

“Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio could have just as easily discouraged protests, short of condemning their message, in the name of public health and exercised discretion to suspend enforcement for public safety reasons instead of encouraging what they knew was a flagrant disregard of the outdoor limits and social distancing rules,” Sharpe continued.

“But by acting as they did, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment.”

The Thomas More Society, which has been representing the clergy, celebrated the injunction as a blow against selective enforcement of social distancing guidelines.

Christopher Ferrara, special counsel for Thomas More Society, said in a statement released Friday that they were “pleased that Judge Sharpe was able to see through the sham of Governor Cuomo’s ‘Social Distancing Protocol’ which went right out the window as soon as he and Mayor de Blasio saw a mass protest movement they favored taking to the streets by the thousands.”

“Suddenly, the limit on ‘mass gatherings’ was no longer necessary to ‘save lives.’ Yet they were continuing to ban high school graduations and other outdoor gatherings exceeding a mere 25 people,” he continued.

“This decision is an important step toward inhibiting the suddenly emerging trend of exercising absolute monarchy on pretext of public health. What this kind of regime really meant in practice is freedom for me, but not for thee.”

Earlier this month, the clergy filed a lawsuit against New York in the District Court for the Northern District of New York. At issue were state orders on reopening that treated houses of worship differently than comparable secular entities.

For example, houses of worship remained limited to 25% indoor capacity during Phases 2 and 3 and a 25-person outdoor gathering limit for Phase 3 locations, while mass protests and businesses faced no attendance limits.

De Blasio garnered controversy in April when he warned New York City’s Jewish and Christian communities that he would permanently shut down synagogues and churches if they did not comply with lockdown orders.

Earlier this month, New York City workers welded shut gates to a park in a predominantly Hasidic area of Brooklyn after residents continued to take their children to the park. This was done as part of Cuomo's state order to prevent crowds from gathering. However, at the same time park gates were welded shut to keep out children and their mothers, thousands were allowed to protest in mass gatherings throughout the city. 

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