NEW YORK - The Brooklyn Diocese and Jewish Orthodox leaders filed lawsuits against New York state over the newly ordered closures and restrictions placed on religious institutions due to spikes in COVID-19 cases. A complaint filed in federal court in Brooklyn sought a protective order blocking Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive order. But a federal judge refused to do so.
Approximately 300 public and private schools along with non-essential businesses and houses of worship in New York City were ordered closed this week due to the alarming rise in cases mostly in Brooklyn and Queens. Other areas outside the 'red zone' were ordered to reduce capacity.
Cuomo's rules limit indoor prayer services to 10 people in places the virus is spreading fastest and caps services at 25 people where virus cases aren't rising as fast.
The restrictions apply in six designated virus hot spots statewide, in parts of New York City, Rockland and Orange counties, and part of Binghamton. Nonessential businesses and schools have also been shut down in some of those areas.
Most of the neighborhoods targeted by the restrictions are home to part of the city's large Orthodox Jewish community, where many religious schools resumed in-person instruction in early September.
In their lawsuit, rabbis, leaders of synagogues and the national Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel had argued that Cuomo was singling out Jews amid the ongoing Sukkot festival and this weekend’s Simchat Torah, which marks the annual cycle of reading the Torah.
“That targeting of a religious minority on the eve of its holidays is reason enough to reject all of defendant’s arguments and allow plaintiffs to celebrate their holidays this weekend as they have for over 2,000 years,” the groups argued in a Friday court filing.
"We are trying to protect the most fundamental freedom that we have under the First Amendment- our free exercise of religion," Randy Mastro, an attorney for the Brooklyn Diocese, told FOX 5 NY morning program, 'Good Day New York.' "And, here, for the Diocese of Brooklyn, these churches in Brooklyn and Queens, they have done everything the right way There has been no outbreak or spread of coronavirus in Diocese churches."
U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto issued a ruling on Friday after an emergency hearing that the state had an interest in protecting public safety.
Twenty-eight churches and parishes are part of the lawsuit.
"This decision goes too far. This decision sweeps too broadly. This decision is wrong. If there are areas of concern, address them in a targeted way. If there are communities of concern, address them in a targeted way," Mastro said. It shuts down all houses of worship. There is absolutely no basis for doing it to these Catholic churches and parishes."
The Democratic governor's attorneys argued in court filings he didn’t single out the Orthodox Jewish community for negative treatment, but instead “clarified that this community would not receive special treatment.” And he argued that houses of worship receive more favorable treatment than non-essential businesses in virus “red zones.”
“And a mass gathering is not less dangerous simply because it is religious in nature,” reads Cuomo’s filing. “Moreover, ‘the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community . . . to communicable disease.’”
The legal battle over Cuomo’s COVID-19 restrictions is expected to continue for months. Religious groups say large churches and temples built to accommodate hundreds of people can surely safety handle more than 10 or 25 people at a time, with the proper social distancing in place.
Cuomo has said that the religious institutions are required to follow the law.
Fines for social distancing and mask violations are up to $1,000 a day. Fines for the sponsors of mass gatherings are $15,000.
"The severity of the problem will determine the response," Cuomo said.
New York has seen a steady rise in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations since early September.
The state has recorded 10,000 new infections over the past seven days, a level of spread not seen since May. An average of 698 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized each day over the past week, up from 457 for the last week of August. At the pandemic's peak, nearly 19,000 New Yorkers were hospitalized.
With The Associated Press
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