A federal judge ruled Friday that New York state and city officials cannot limit religious gatherings while still allowing mass protests against police brutality and re-opening secular businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York finds that the state is violating the First Amendment by limiting religious gatherings to curb the spread of COVID-19. Sharpe’s ruling placed a preliminary injunction on Governor Andrew Cuomo, state Attorney General Letitia James, and Mayor Bill de Blasio from ordering or enforcing public health restrictions on outdoor religious gatherings, or to limit indoor religious gatherings at less than 50 percent capacity.
Spokespeople for Cuomo and for de Blasio's Law Department told Newsday Friday that the ruling was being reviewed by their offices.
The lawsuit Rev. Steven Soos et al. v. Cuomo et al was filed June 10th on behalf of two Catholic priests from upstate New York, and three Orthodox Jewish congregants from Brooklyn.
The ruling cites Cuomo’s remarks at a June 1st press conference, “I think you can protest, but do it smartly and intelligently” and “With this virus, you can do many things now as long as you’re smart about it, right? You can reopen, you can go into a store and you can do a lot of things, just be smart.” The governor also was quoted in the ruling telling New Yorkers to “[b]e smart. It does not mean you go to a temple or a mosque and you sit right next to a person. You have to socially distance.” The state has allowed religious gatherings at 25% capacity during Phase 2, though Sharpe pointed out "no other secular entity, save for those that remain closed in their entirety until Phase 4 or beyond, are limited to only 25% capacity" and that “nonessential businesses” allowed to open in Phase 2 at 50 percent capacity are “not justifiably different than houses of worship.”
The ruling also cites de Blasio’s April 28th tweets about large crowds gathered at a funeral procession in Williamsburg, where he tweeted “what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus.” and followed with “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.” The ruling notes that de Blasio, “without a mask, attended and addressed a political gathering, held in memory of George Floyd” on June 4th.
Sharpe wrote in the ruling that “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. 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.”
He added, “it is not the judiciary’s role to second guess the likes of Governor Cuomo or Mayor de Blasio when it comes to decisions they make in such troubling times, that is, until those decisions result in the curtailment of fundamental rights without compelling justification.”
The lawyer for the Catholic clergy, Christopher Ferrara of the religious liberty organization Thomas More Society, said in a statement Sharpe’s ruling cuts “through the sham of Governor Cuomo’s ‘Social Distancing Protocol’ which went right out the window as soon as he and Mayor de Blasio saw a mass protest movement they favored taking to the streets by the thousands.”
Ferrara said, “Suddenly, the limit on ‘mass gatherings’ was no longer necessary to ‘save lives.’ Yet they were continuing to ban high school graduations and other outdoor gatherings exceeding a mere 25 people. This decision is an important step toward inhibiting the suddenly emerging trend of exercising absolute monarchy on pretext of public health. What this kind of regime really meant in practice is freedom for me, but not for thee.”