Two Catholic priests and three Orthodox Jewish congregants have filed a lawsuit against New York governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio in federal court, alleging that the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic violated the constitutional rights of religious New Yorkers.
Catholic priests Steven Soos and Nicholas Stamos, from upstate New York, and Orthodox Jewish congregants Elchanan Perr, Daniel Schonborn, and Mayer Mayerfeld, from Brooklyn, filed the suit alleging civil-rights violations in the Northern District of New York. In addition to Cuomo and de Blasio, it also names state attorney general Letitia James as a defendant.
The lawsuit claims that the governor, mayor, and attorney general violated the First Amendment and due-process rights of the plaintiffs by selectively enforcing pandemic-control measures. Even as mass protests were allowed to take place across the state, people of faith were targeted with threats of criminal prosecution and $1000 fines for violating the restrictions on group gatherings, the suit alleges.
As stringent restrictions on religious services remain in place until the coronavirus pandemic is brought under control, protests have taken place on a large scale across the state and the nation in response to the death of George Floyd. In New York City, groups much larger than ten people — the limit de Blasio set for non-essential gatherings — have not been broken up by law enforcement, the suit notes. Days later, a group of Hasidic Jewish children was kicked out of a park in Williamsburg by a police officer for not abiding by the ten-person limit.
An attorney for the plaintiffs, Thomas More Society special counsel Christopher Ferrara, argued in a statement that both New York’s emergency stay-at-home order and its reopening plan “clearly discriminate against houses of worship.”
“The COVID-19 related orders purport to be facially neutral, yet fail to prohibit secular activity that endangers the state interest in ‘public health’ equally or to a greater degree than the prohibited religious conduct,” Ferrara tells National Review. “Why is a large worship gathering deemed more dangerous than a mass protest, full of shouting, arm-waving people in close proximity to one another?”
“It is time to end New York’s experiment in absolute monarchy,” Ferrara added. “We are asking the court to put an end to these unconstitutional executive orders and their prejudicial enforcement.”