A federal judge has refused to block Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order limiting worship to as few as 10 congregants in communities seeing spikes in coronavirus infections.
Ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis said in an order Friday that even though the rules harm religious groups, it is not in the public interest to block them if they are helping prevent a wave of new infections.
“In fact, if the court issues an injunction and the state is correct about the acuteness of the threat currently posed by hotspot neighborhoods, the result could be avoidable death on a massive scale like New Yorkers experienced in the spring," Garaufis wrote.
The ruling doesn't end the lawsuit, but denied the church's request for a temporary injunction.
Garaufis said it was conceivable the diocese could end up ultimately winning the case, but that the worst that could happen in the meantime to the diocese's churches is that 26 of them would have to curtail in-person ceremonies for several weeks.
“That is not meant, in any way, to downplay the seriousness of that constitutional harm,” the judge said. But he said the potential to save lives outweighed the damage the church would suffer.
Cuomo on Oct. 6 announced that he was limiting attendance at houses of worship, closing schools and shuttering nonessential businesses in six parts of New York City, Binghamton and Rockland and Orange counties where COVID-19 infections have spiked.
Most of the affected areas are home to large communities of Orthodox Jews, which has prompted protests from Jewish leaders who say they are being unfairly targeted.
Garaufis wrote in his decision that it was clear the state’s restrictions had been “guided by science, not a desire to target religious practice."
The Brooklyn diocese had argued that its congregations hadn't seen a big increase coronavirus cases, and that it had implemented successful social-distancing measures for religious services, including placing communion wafers in congregants’ hands rather than on their tongues.
Despite that, the governor “continues to run roughshod over the diocese’s right to worship, without any basis—not a rational one, not a narrowly tailored one, simply none,” the church's lawyers said in court papers filed Friday.
Similar lawsuits have been filed by Jewish groups.
In their filings, state lawyers said that within the state's so-called “red zones,” just under 5% of all people who took a COVID-19 test were testing positive, down from nearly 8% in late September. They said that shows the restrictions are working, but said things had not improved enough to lift restrictions.
State lawyers also noted that the rules let houses of worship remain open, while nonessential businesses in “red zone” areas were required to close entirely.
“This response respects the rights of worshipers while curtailing the spread of the virus and protecting the public health from this deadly disease,” Assistant Attorney General Seth Farber said in a Friday filing.
The Cuomo administration hasn't said exactly when the restrictions might be lifted, but the initial plan was to have them in place for at least two weeks.
A group of priests and Orthodox congregants sued in a different federal court in June over Cuomo's previous limits on religious gatherings, and a judge ruled that New York can't have stricter limits for houses of worship than nonessential businesses.
The group is now in court arguing Cuomo's new cluster zone plan violates that court order. A federal judge Friday gave Cuomo and New York City until Oct. 20 to respond.