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Court Sides with Cuomo Against New York Jews Fighting for Religious Freedom

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A federal judge refused Friday to block New York’s plan to limit the size of religious gatherings in coronavirus hot spots.

U.S. District Judge 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 Jewish holidays this weekend.

The rules limit indoor worship 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.

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

In their lawsuit, rabbis, leaders of synagogues and the national Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel had argued that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was singling out Jews amid the ongoing Sukkot festival and this weekend’s Simchat Torah, which marks the end and beginning of the yearly 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.

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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 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.’”

The legal battle over Cuomo’s coronavirus restrictions is expected to continue for months.

Religious groups say large churches and temples built to accommodate hundreds of people can surely safely handle more than 10 or 25 people at a time.

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

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“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 percent capacity limit, though New York City restaurants have a 25 percent limit.

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

New York has recorded 10,000 new infections over the past seven days. An average of 698 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized each day over the past week, up from 457 for the last week of August.

Cuomo says much of the uptick is due to hot spots in Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City and suburban counties.

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

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 an Orthodox Jewish journalist during the protests.

Authorities didn’t confirm there would be an arrest, saying only they were still investigating the confrontation involving Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider.

At a protest Wednesday night, Tischler led a large group of men who chased and surrounded Kornbluh and trapped him against a storefront.

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