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US court strikes down pandemic limits on New York’s houses of worship

Agudath Israel of America says ruling confirms that governor’s order to reduce capacity at synagogues was a violation of religious liberty

Members of ultra-Orthodox community gather to listen to an interview conducted by a journalist on a street corner, in the Borough Park neighborhood of New York as Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved to reinstate restrictions on houses of worship in and near areas where coronavirus cases are spiking, October 7, 2020. (John Minchillo/AP)
Members of ultra-Orthodox community gather to listen to an interview conducted by a journalist on a street corner, in the Borough Park neighborhood of New York as Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved to reinstate restrictions on houses of worship in and near areas where coronavirus cases are spiking, October 7, 2020. (John Minchillo/AP)

JTA — A federal court of appeals ruled that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s capacity limits on houses of worship in areas with rising COVID-19 cases constituted a violation of religious liberty.

The ruling on Monday comes after a Supreme Court injunction last month blocked Cuomo from enforcing the rules until the lower court could reevaluate an earlier ruling that upheld state guidelines limiting synagogue attendance to 10 or 25 people.

The case, brought by the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, an advocacy organization representing ultra-Orthodox Jews, was one of the first religious liberty cases to be decided by the court’s new conservative majority. The appeals court ruling was celebrated by Agudath Israel as confirmation that it had achieved a victory for religious liberty.

“The courts have clearly recognized that the restrictions imposed by New York State violate the constitutional rights of those seeking to attend religious worship services,” Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said in a statement Monday.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to members of New York state’s Electoral College in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol in Albany, New York, December 14, 2020. (Hans Pennink, Pool/AP)

The court of appeals did not rule on the constitutionality of percentage capacity limits, which would have impacted smaller houses of worship. Houses of worship in zones with the highest rates of COVID-19, so-called red zones, were subjected to capacity limits of ten people or 25% of building capacity, whichever is fewer. In orange zones, the limit was 25 people or 33% of capacity, whichever is fewer.

The court ordered the district court to reevaluate its ruling on the percentage capacity limits imposed by Cuomo to determine if they discriminated against houses of worship.

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