Judge strikes down strict virus capacity rules for religious services in NY
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Judge strikes down strict virus capacity rules for religious services in NY

Attorney for plaintiffs, including Orthodox Jews, slams US state for ‘irrational targeting of houses of worship’; restriction limited attendance to 25%, less than other gatherings

Hundreds of mourners gather in the Brooklyn borough of New York to observe a funeral for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, a Hasidic leader whose death was reportedly tied to the coronavirus, April 28, 2020. (Peter Gerber via AP, File)
Hundreds of mourners gather in the Brooklyn borough of New York to observe a funeral for Rabbi Chaim Mertz, a Hasidic leader whose death was reportedly tied to the coronavirus, April 28, 2020. (Peter Gerber via AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge on Friday blocked New York state from enforcing coronavirus restrictions limiting indoor religious gatherings to 25 percent capacity when other types of gatherings are limited to 50%.

Judge Gary Sharpe enjoined Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Attorney General Letitia James from enforcing some of the capacity restrictions put in place by executive order to contain the spread of the virus.

The plaintiffs’ religious activities “will be burdened and continue to be treated less favorably than comparable secular activities,” Sharpe said in his 38-page ruling from Albany.

The plaintiffs, two Roman Catholic priests from upstate New York and three Orthodox Jewish congregants from Brooklyn, argued that the restrictions violated their First Amendment rights to practice their religion.

The plaintiffs said the restrictions forced the Reverend Steven Soos and the Reverend Nicholas Stamos to either turn away parishioners who wished to attend Mass “or to hold more Masses per day than are possible.”

A group of people who could not attend the church service for Bishop Carl Williams, Jr., due to restrictions on the size of gatherings, release balloons to honor his memory in front of his church in the Brooklyn borough of New York, May 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Christopher Ferrara, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called the unequal restrictions “an irrational targeting of houses of worship.”

“The idea that houses of worship are some deadly viral vector unlike anything else is just superstition,” Ferrara said in a telephone interview. “There’s no science to support that.”

Restrictions limiting the number of people who can attend outdoor religious gatherings will also be lifted by the injunction.

The judge noted that both Cuomo and de Blasio have expressed approval for protests against racism and police brutality that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month while continuing to support restrictions on 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,” he said.

A spokesperson for Cuomo said the governor’s office will review the decision. A spokesperson for the New York City law department said, “We will review this new ruling and work with the state on next steps.”

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