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NY judge upholds limits on indoor prayers, rejecting lawsuit by Jewish group

After rabbis and synagogues call restrictions during holidays unconstitutional, court upholds rules that cap services in houses of worship at 10 people in virus hot spots

Members of the ultra-Orthodox community gather to listen in on an interview with a journalist, October 7, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Members of the ultra-Orthodox community gather to listen in on an interview with a journalist, October 7, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

A federal judge refused on Friday to block New York’s plan to temporarily limit the size of religious gatherings in COVID-19 hot spots.

US District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto issued the ruling after an emergency hearing in a lawsuit brought by rabbis and synagogues, arguing the restrictions were unconstitutional. They had sought to have enforcement delayed until at least after the Jewish holidays this weekend.

The rules limit indoor prayer services to 10 people in areas where the virus is spreading fastest. In other areas within hot spots, indoor religious services are capped at 25 people.

The restrictions apply in six designated areas in parts of New York City, Rockland and Orange counties, and part of Binghamton. Non-essential businesses and schools have also been shut down in some of those areas.

Ruling from the bench, the judge said the state had an interest in protecting public safety.

In their lawsuit, rabbis, leaders of synagogues and the national Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel had argued that Governor Andrew Cuomo was singling out Jews during the weeklong Sukkot holiday and this weekend’s Simchat Torah holiday, 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.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn also filed a lawsuit challenging the restrictions.

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.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers a COVID-19 update during a briefing in New York City, September 29, 2020. (Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo via AP, File)

“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.”

Agudath Israel expressed disappointment in Friday’s decision in a tweet and promised to continue working on the issue after Shemini Atzeret, which begins Friday night.

“Crushing Disappointment: Judge denies [temporary restraining order], allows draconian restrictions on religious worship in NY. More info to follow. Agudah reminds everyone to follow health guidelines as we celebrate zman simchaseinu,” our time of joy. “We will regroup after” the holiday “and determine our next steps,” they said.

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.

Agudah Chairman Shlomo Werdiger expressed his regret over the ruling and called upon Cuomo and other government officials to be more solicitous of the community’s legitimate religious needs.

“We appeal to our elected officials and executive agencies to work with us collaboratively in developing policies that both ensure good health and allow us to practice our faith. It shouldn’t be necessary to have to fight these things out in court,” he said.

Cuomo’s administration is also fighting a June federal court ruling that said New York can’t impose stricter limits on religious gatherings than businesses. Since then, houses of worship and businesses statewide have had a 50% capacity limit, though New York City restaurants have a 25% limit.

That lawsuit was originally filed by the conservative Thomas More Society, which expanded its suit Friday to charge Cuomo’s new hot spot plan puts him in contempt of court.

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.

Cuomo warns much of the uptick is due to hot spots in Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City and suburban counties, on top of clusters linked to colleges and a Baptist church in upstate New York.

Hundreds of Orthodox Jews rallied in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood on two nights this week to protest the restrictions.

Police officers stand guard as groups of protesters gather in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, October 7, 2020. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

One of the organizers of those demonstrations, Heshy Tischler, said Friday on social media that he had agreed to surrender to police next week amid allegations that he had instigated an attack on Jewish journalist Jacob Kornbluh during the protests.

Authorities didn’t confirm there would be an arrest, saying only they were still investigating the confrontation involving Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider who has documented the coronavirus outbreak in Orthodox Jewish communities.

At a protest Wednesday night, Tischler led a large group of men who chased and surrounded Kornbluh and trapped him against a storefront. Kornbluh said he had been punched and kicked during the incident and that he was planning to press charges.

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