On Friday, a federal judge ruled that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, and Mayor Bill de Blasio may not order or enforce indoor or outdoor restrictions on religious worship gatherings.
Represented by the Thomas More Society, two Catholic priests from upstate New York and a trio of Orthodox Jewish congregants from Brooklyn sued Cuomo, James and de Blasio for violations of their free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.
Senior U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe issued a preliminary injunction and said that Governor Cuomo is wrong to limit worship services as a “matter of public safety” yet condone mass protests. In awarding the injunction, the court noted that “nonessential businesses” that enjoy a 50 percent capacity limitation are not justifiably different than houses of worship. As a result of the federal order, the governor, attorney general, and mayor are “enjoined and restrained from enforcing any indoor gathering limitations” against the involved houses of worship “greater than imposed for Phase 2 industries,” if participants follow the prescribed social distancing. They are also forbidden from “enforcing any limitation for outdoor gatherings provided that participants in such gatherings follow social distancing requirements as set forth in the applicable executive orders and guidance.”
Judge Sharpe chastised Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio when he stated they “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’s order noted that offices, retails stores, salons, and restaurants – all now permitted to open at 50 percent capacity indoors – all involve the congregation of people for a length of time. He stated, “These secular businesses/activities threaten defendants’ interest in slowing the spread of COVID-19 to a similar or greater degree than those of plaintiffs’ and demonstrate that the 25 percent indoor capacity limitation on houses of worship is underinclusive and triggers strict scrutiny review.”
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “It is interesting how Governor Cuomo’s limit on ‘mass gatherings’ suddenly was no longer necessary to ‘save lives’ when he and Mayor de Blasio wanted to endorse a mass protest movement they favored. Yet they were continuing to ban high school graduations and other outdoor gatherings exceeding a mere 25 people. This is a great ruling by Judge Sharpe to stop the blatant discrimination of religious services by these heavy-handed New York government officials.”