Agudath Israel of America filed a lawsuit on Thursday, October 8, 2020, in federal court, asking for a temporary restraining order to bar the State of New York from enforcing its limits on house of worship attendance in certain areas of the state. The limits, announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo just two days ago, would cap Shul and other houses of worship attendance in so-called “red zones” to ten individuals.
The memorandum argues that the Executive Order’s restrictions unconstitutionally discriminate against religious practice while simultaneously permitting comparable secular conduct. Moreover, the restrictions violate Free Exercise rights because they appear to target conduct due to their religious motivation.
With Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeres, and Simchas Torah holidays beginning tomorrow, October 9th, these limits would, according to just one of the points made in the lawsuit, disrupt the religious observance of tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews, “depriving them of their religious worship and holiday observance.” This is because, for example, in a synagogue the size of co-plaintiff Agudath Israel of Madison, “the capacity limits would require over twenty such services on Friday morning to serve the entire congregation. That is simply impossible.”
The lawsuit also contends that although the caps apply to all house of worship, and thereby discriminates against all religions, the order disproportionally impacts the religious services of Orthodox Jews who cannot drive to a synagogue out of a “red zone” on Shabbos or holidays such as Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah.
The filing requested that the court – in light of the holidays beginning tomorrow – immediately grant a temporary restraining order (TRO) preventing the state government from enforcing the new limits, as well as declaring the executive order unconstitutional.
Other plaintiffs in the filing were Agudath Israel of Kew Garden Hills, Agudath Israel of Bayswater, Congregation Zichron Moshe Dov, Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, Rabbi Menachem Feifer, Rabbi Aaron Stein, Steven Saphirstein, and Aharon Weisenfeld.
“Social distancing, masking, and all health precautions must, of course, be observed,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel. “However, we think that it is possible to stay safe and at the same time have more than ten people in a Shul building that is meant to hold hundreds.”
“This lawsuit is a last resort,” said Agudah’s Chairman of the Board Shlomo Werdiger. “We would have been able to accomplish much more for these critical public health needs had the governor’s administration worked together with us more closely beforehand. We look forward to working with them next time. Unfortunately, the Governor’s new executive order makes it impossible for us to practice our religion, and we really had no choice but to seek relief in the courts.”
Representing Agudath Israel is the law firm Troutman Pepper. The legal team is led by well known attorney Avi Schick.