A federal judge slapped down a major portion of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s restrictions on religious institutions. The ruling lifted a capacity cap on services as churches, mosques, temples and similar facilities that critics said were extremely unjust.
U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe issued a preliminary injunction blocking New York from enforcing its prior cap, which limited religious institutions to just 25% of their capacity in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening process and 33% in Phase 4.
Now, religious facilities will face the same 50% indoor capacity limit that restaurants and businesses currently face in New York.
Sharpe also barred the state from enforcing any capacity limit on outdoor gatherings. It wasn’t immediately clear Friday whether his ruling applied to all outdoor events or only religious services.
Attendees of any service, indoor or outdoor, will be required to adhere to the state’s six-foot social distancing rule, Sharpe ruled.
In his ruling, Sharpe noted New York carved out graduation ceremonies from its statewide ban on gatherings of more than 25 people in Phase 3 and 50 people in Phase 4.
He also pointed to comments from Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio that seemed to encourage people to participate in the mass protests that followed the death of George Floyd.
Those actions displayed “preferential treatment” of protests and graduation ceremonies that were not applied equally to religious services, Sharpe noted.
“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,” Sharpe wrote.
“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.”
Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior adviser and spokesman, said the governor’s office is “reviewing the decision.”
Sharpe’s injunction came at the request of two Society of Saint Pius X priests from the North Country and three Orthodox Jewish congregants from Brooklyn, who argued the state was applying an illegal double standard to religious institutions that violated their First Amendment rights.
They were represented by the Thomas More Society, a legal group that specializes in religious liberty.
“We are pleased that Judge Sharpe was able to see 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,” Thomas More Society special counsel Christopher Ferrara said in a statement.
Cuomo has repeatedly expressed caution about mass religious services in close quarters in the age of COVID-19. He has been silent on the mass gatherings of tens of thousands in protests during June. At one point a spokesperson for the governor stated that protests held little risk to the public. The statement drew outcries from religious liberty proponents and pushback from social media which hammered the governor.
In his ruling, Sharpe also pointed to the state’s ongoing capacity restrictions for non-religious businesses, which in general have been set at 50% depending on the reopening phase.
Sharpe said that helped prove the plaintiffs’ case that the limits weren’t being applied evenly.
“(These) secular businesses/activities threaten (the state’s) interest in slowing the spread of COVID-19 to a similar or greater degree than those of plaintiffs’, and demonstrate that the 25% indoor capacity limitation on houses of worship is underinclusive and triggers strict scrutiny review,” Sharpe wrote.
The state Catholic Conference, which represents Catholic dioceses across New York, was not involved in the lawsuit.
“Our intention is to continue to follow state guidance regardless of this decision as a matter of prudential judgment,” said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference. “We must prioritize the health and well being of our congregants, clergy and parish staffs above all.”