A federal judge issued an injunction Friday blocking New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio from enforcing restrictions on outdoor and indoor gatherings of religious groups that are stricter than businesses and other types of gatherings.
The state and city sought to limit indoor religious gatherings to 25 percent capacity through executive orders, while other businesses and organizations were permitted 50 percent capacity, in New York’s “Phase Two” reopening plan.
Jewish and Catholic plaintiffs sued Cuomo, de Blasio and New York Attorney General Letitia James over the restrictions, arguing they prevented them from practicing their faith.
The state order, which was incorporated by de Blasio in an executive order, allowed outdoor gatherings for graduations of up to 150 people beginning on June 26.
However, Judge Gary Sharpe of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York noted in his ruling that for religious groups, the outdoor restriction of no more than 10 people remained in place for Phase 2.
He further pointed out that Cuomo and de Blasio have allowed mass protests in response to the death of George Floyd, sometimes numbering in the thousands, to occur unhindered, thereby recognizing their First Amendment constitutional right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government.”
Sharpe quoted Cuomo endorsing the protests earlier this month when he told a reporter, “I think you can protest, but do it smartly and intelligently.”
“There were protests all across the country,” Cuomo added. “Protest. Just be smart about it.”
Similarly, de Blasio actually spoke at one of the protest gatherings on June 4 without a mask.
“Neither the ten-person limit on outdoor gatherings, nor the social distancing protocols, were adhered to,” Sharpe pointed out.
Meanwhile, de Blasio threatened Jewish congregants who met with immediate arrest if they violated the 10 person limit.
The judge recounted that laws restricting the practice of religion, in order to pass constitutional muster, must be generally applicable to all similarly situated groups. But such was not the case with New York’s executive orders.
In other words, religious adherents have the right to equal protection under the law.
“On its face, the 25% indoor capacity limitation applies only to houses of worship,” the judge wrote.
“Indeed, that limitation is the only one of its kind in the tangle of executive orders and the Guidance Document that have been issued in response to the pandemic,” he added.
Meanwhile, offices, shopping malls, retail stores and salons are all permitted to open at 50 percent capacity in “Phase Two.”
The judge concluded that “appropriate injunctive relief here is a restraint on defendants [Cuomo, de Blasio and James] from enforcement of any indoor gathering limitations against plaintiffs greater than imposed for Phase 2 industries and restraint from enforcement of any limitation for outdoor gatherings against plaintiffs.”
Montse Alvarado, executive director for the religious liberty group Becket, praised Sharpe’s decision.
“There’s no First Amendment double standard,” she said in a statement to The Western Journal.
“The judge in the Northern District of New York ruled that Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio can’t treat religious groups worse than everyone else,” Alvarado continued.
“They decided to treat houses of worship worse than non-essential businesses that were at 50 percent capacity. In their minds, religious worship is beneath non-essential gatherings.”
This is a big win for religious freedom. Religious groups are not looking for special treatment during the time of pandemic – they are looking for *equal* treatment. That is what Judge Sharpe’s decision today requires Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo to do. (end)
— María Montserrat Alvarado (@Mmontsealvarado) June 26, 2020
“This is a big win for religious freedom,” Alvarado wrote in a tweet following the decision. “Religious groups are not looking for special treatment during the time of pandemic – they are looking for *equal* treatment. That is what Judge Sharpe’s decision today requires Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo to do.”
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