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Federal Judge Rules Cuomo, De Blasio Exceeded Authority by Restricting Religious Services While Condoning Protests

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio deliver remarks at a news conference regarding the state’s first confirmed case of coronavirus in New York City, March 2, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

A federal judge on Friday ruled that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo violated the Constitution by restricting religious services to stem the spread of the coronavirus while simultaneously condoning mass protests that took place across the state.

U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe granted a preliminary injunction blocking New York from enforcing its stringent coronavirus restrictions on religious services. The state’s current restrictions require houses of worship to operate at 25 percent capacity and later at 33 percent capacity when New York enters Phase Four of its re-opening plan.

De Blasio issued “simultaneous pro-protest/anti-religious gathering messages” and “actively encouraged participation in protests and openly discouraged religious gatherings and threatened religious worshipers,” the judge said in his order.

“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.”

Two Catholic priests, Steven Soos and Nicholas Stamos, and three Orthodox Jewish congregants in Brooklyn, Elchanan Perr, Daniel Schonborn, and Mayer Mayerfeld, filed a lawsuit against Cuomo and de Blasio earlier this month, alleging that the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic violated the constitutional rights of religious New Yorkers. The lawsuit 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.

Meanwhile, mass protests have occurred across New York as well as the rest of the country in response to the death of George Floyd. In New York City, groups of protesters 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 after de Blasio spoke at a large protest in Brooklyn, 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.

“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” de Blasio wrote in an April tweet. “I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”

Friday’s order blocks New York from enforcing a capacity limit on outdoor religious services and states that houses of worship are now subject to the same 50 percent capacity limit as businesses. Those who attend religious services must still follow the six-foot social distancing requirement, Sharpe said.

Thomas More Society special counsel Christopher Ferrara, who represents the plaintiffs, said the state was conducting an “experiment in absolute monarchy” and called on the court to block the “unconstitutional executive orders and their prejudicial enforcement.”

“This decision is an important step toward inhibiting the suddenly emerging trend of exercising absolute monarchy on [the] pretext of public health. What this kind of regime really meant in practice is freedom for me, but not for thee,” Ferrara said in response to Friday’s order.

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