Federal Judge Bars Pandemic Capacity Restrictions on New York Religious Gatherings

June 27, 2020 Updated: June 28, 2020

A federal judge has blocked New York state from enforcing its pandemic restrictions on religious gatherings, saying that the capacity caps imposed on religious institutions have not been applied equally to secular activities.

U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe on June 26 granted a preliminary injunction (pdf) that barred Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and state Attorney General Letitia James from enforcing the state’s 25 percent indoor capacity cap on religious institutions in phase two of the reopening process when other gatherings, such as in some retail stores and salons, enjoy a limit of 50 percent capacity.

He said that those nonessential businesses that enjoy the 50 percent cap are not “justifiably different than houses of worship.”

The order gives the plaintiffs—two Catholic priests and three Orthodox Jewish congregants—and other people of faith the ability to congregate at indoor places of worship at 50 percent capacity provided they follow social distancing guidelines.

The state was also blocked from enforcing any limitation for outdoor gatherings, but it’s not immediately clear whether that only applies to religious gatherings.

The ruling is a victory for people of faith and religious leaders who have been at odds with state and local officials over CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus lockdown measures, which they say unfairly target faith-based activities. The ongoing tension has prompted the federal government to intervene by warning localities that impose restrictions that run afoul of the constitutional rights and civil liberties of citizens.

The plaintiffs in the case argued that New York’s restrictions had violated a number of their First Amendment rights, such as their right to practice their religion.

Sharpe acknowledged in his ruling that “the loss of plaintiffs’ free exercise rights” was adequate to show that they would suffer “irreparable injury.”

The judge also noted that New York officials had over the last few weeks encouraged the George Floyd protests or carved out exemptions for graduation ceremonies. He said that the state had failed to show compelling justifications for why those group gatherings should be afforded “preferential treatment” compared to religious gatherings.

“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. They could have also been silent. But by acting as they did, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment,” Sharpe wrote.

In the granting the injunction, he said that without it, the “plaintiffs’ religious activities will be burdened and continue to be treated less favorably than comparable secular activities.”

A lawyer from the Thomas More Society, who represented the plaintiffs, said they were pleased by the ruling.

“We are 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,” Christopher Ferrara, Thomas More Society special counsel, said in a statement.

Cuomo’s press office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department called the ruling “a win for religious freedom and the civil liberties of New Yorkers.”

“Government cannot discriminate by protecting free speech and the right to assemble while threatening or limiting religious exercise—it must protect all rights guaranteed under the First Amendment,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

“The court’s decision is consistent with positions and arguments made by the United States Department of Justice in similar filings and letters, including in New York City and elsewhere around the country. The Department of Justice will continue to support people of faith who seek equal treatment against threats and actions by public officials who discriminate against them because of their religion. The Constitution and our oath to defend and protect it require nothing less.”

Attorney General William Barr has been vocal about the need to protect constitutional rights and civil liberties even during a public health crisis. Barr has previously said that while it is important that state and local officials put in broad measures to mitigate the spread of the pandemic at the beginning, these measures should be rolled back when the flow of cases begins to ebb. He said officials should then look into more targeted approaches.

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