Suit Filed Alleging Religious Discrimination in Actions by Cuomo and De Blasio

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houses of worship coronavirus
Shomrei Shabbos Shul in Boro Park, closed in March. (Avraham Elbaz/File)

Shuls, yeshivos and other religious gatherings could receive legal protection from the COVID the regulation regime pending the decision of a New York State Judge.

In a lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, three Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn and two Catholic priests charged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio of a “blatant double standard” in discriminating against people of faith, and of using threats of fines and criminal prosecution to enforce their actions. The group of five are represented by the Thomas More Society, a law firm which has represented faith groups in religious discrimination law suits in the past.

While a full hearing of the suit’s merits would likely take months to take place, plaintiffs have asked for a temporary restraining order which would lift limits on prayer services and other religious activities until a final ruling is given. According to sources familiar with the case, it is expected that Judge Gary L. Sharpe will decide whether or not to grant the request for a preliminary injunction.

“These orders, both the emergency stay-at-home and reopening plan declarations, clearly discriminate against houses of worship,” said Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara. “They are illegally content-based, elaborate, arbitrary, and pseudo-scientific. The governor and his agents, along with New York City’s mayor, have employed favoritism and political platforms against people of faith.”

In addition to the unconstitutional and discriminatory nature of the orders and enforcement, the “so-called science” is irrational. “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?” Ferrara asked.

Among many violations cited in the suit, de Blasio ignored social distancing and the 10-person limit when he didn’t wear a face mask on June 4 while attending and addressing a demonstration at Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza. Yet in April, de Blasio threatened the Jewish community with arrests and prosecutions for attending the funeral of Harav Chaim Mertz, zt”l, where de Blasio himself joined the police in Williamsburg to break it up.

“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” de Blasio wrote in a tweet at that time. “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.”

The law suit quotes the answer given by De Blasio to a Hamodia reporter who asked why he differentiated between the funeral and the protests. “What about … the religious person who can’t attend a house of worship – what about their pain and anger? So, Mr. Mayor are we in a pandemic or not? And do we have one set of rules for protestors and another for everyone else?”

De Blasio: “… I appreciate how painful it’s been for people to be missing religious observance, but I’ll tell you the religious leaders of this city have stood as one and said we are not going to do things prematurely, that will endanger lives….

“But this is the other piece of the equation: When you see a nation, an entire nation, simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism, I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved … devout religious person who wants to go back to services….

“The religious services come back, that does not have to be far away, if we do the work together. And we will.”

The law suit lists a number of specifications for “congregate worship” and “houses of worship” in the multiple orders.

The plaintiffs are seeking “immediate judicial relief from the gathering limits in the challenged executive orders…because they deprive plaintiffs of the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of expressive association without a compelling state interest or even a rational basis to justify those deprivations.”

Attorney Mordechai Avigdor, who has counseled the Orthodox plaintiffs in the suit told Hamodia that the outcome of the case could have ramifications on the state’s authority over religious practice well beyond the present health crisis.

“This is about far more than emergency orders, what happens in this case will certainly make an impact on religious liberty claims thought the US,” he said. “If the state is permitted to have an unchecked hand over shuls and yeshivos today because of the coronavirus, it could lead to a very slippery slope in the near future.”


Updated Tuesday, June 16, 2020 at 3:03 pm .