Catholics, Jews Sue NY's Cuomo Over Limits on Religious Attendance

Catholics, Jews Sue NY's Cuomo Over Limits on Religious Attendance
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference in New York City, N.Y., on Sept. 8, 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

Catholics and Jews are suing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in two separate federal lawsuits over restrictions on attendance of religious services that they say violate their constitutional rights.

“The governor’s new ‘Cluster Action Initiative’ is a completely arbitrary and astounding abuse of power, just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse,” Christopher Ferrara, special counsel to the Thomas More Society, a public-interest law firm that focuses on protecting religious freedoms, said in a statement.

“It is a blatant violation of our clients’ right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, including their right to be free from such explicit and brazen religious discrimination.”

Ferrara’s firm is representing two Catholic priests, two Catholic school students, and four Orthodox Jews in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn also is suing the state of New York, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, over Cuomo’s new order that restricts some indoor masses in New York City to 10 people. Violating the order can lead to fines of $15,000.

The diocese claims the new public health edict enacted to combat a new spike in infections, will “arbitrarily reduce capacity” at churches.

“If this latest executive order stands, parishioners won't be able to go to Mass this Sunday, even though the Diocese has done everything right to ensure safe conditions in its churches,” the diocese’s attorney, Randy Mastro, said in a statement last week.

“Thus, this religious community will be denied its most fundamental right—the free exercise of religion—for no legitimate reason whatsoever.”

The church’s attempt to obtain a temporary restraining order against the state was rebuffed by Judge Eric Komitee, who wrote in his order released Oct. 10 that “the government is afforded wide latitude in managing the spread of deadly diseases.”

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in a statement that the diocese was disappointed by the ruling but ultimately expect to prevail in the lawsuit that was launched on behalf of the 1.5 million Catholics who worship in the diocese.

“We are seeking what is just. And we have kept parishioners safe and will continue to do so. Thus, there is no reason for this latest interference with our First Amendment right to celebrate Mass together, so we will continue to press the courts and our elected officials to end it as soon as possible.”

“I ask all Catholics to join me in continued prayer for the end of this terrible virus,” he added.

Cuomo, a Democrat, threatened to shut down houses of worship if they fail to follow restrictions aimed at combating the CCP virus that causes the occasionally deadly disease COVID-19. Orthodox Jews, in particular, say Cuomo has been unfairly targeting them, a claim the governor denies.

“We know religious institutions have been a problem,” Cuomo said Oct. 5. “We know mass gatherings are the super spreader events. We know there have been mass gatherings going on in concert with religious institutions in these communities for weeks. For weeks.”

Cuomo said churches and synagogues would be shuttered if they stopped limiting religious gatherings to 50 percent of their indoor capacity.

But on Oct. 6, Cuomo issued a new policy called the “Cluster Action Initiative,” essentially shutting down churches and synagogues in various newly created “Red Zones” throughout New York City and elsewhere in the state. He also shut religious schools in both the “Red Zones” and in the newly designated “Orange Zones,” according to the Thomas More Society.

The most restrictive “Red Zones” single out houses of worship and limit religious gatherings to 25 percent percent of capacity, but cap that number at 10 people. “Orange Zones” limit houses of worship to 33 percent of capacity but no more than 25 people, and “Yellow Zones” limit houses of worship to 50 percent.

Meanwhile, businesses designated essential are exempt in every zone, including retail shopping, factories, shelters, airplane travel, and numerous other activities typically involving crowds of people in confined spaces.

Most “nonessential” businesses can reopen in the “Orange Zone,” and all nonessential businesses, including indoor dining, can reopen in the “Yellow Zone,” all without any limitations on capacity. Houses of worship alone are singled out for special limitations, the law firm states.

Ferrara called Cuomo’s new executive fiat that, among other things, closes Catholic and Jewish schools “absurd.”

“It is the very antithesis of a narrowly tailored restriction on religion and expression, which is what the Constitution requires given the role of religious schools in handing on their respective faiths to children. Cuomo claims this will last for only 14 days, but we saw how that worked the last time he got on his emperor’s throne and began tossing endless mandates.”

In an interview, a spokesman for Cuomo said the governor isn't targeting religious groups and is trying to protect public health.