NY judge blocks Cuomo from enforcing COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings

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Governor Andrew Cuomo (center) holds a daily press briefing in Albany, New York on June 16, 2020. - Darren McGee/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo/TNS

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio favored protest over prayer when imposing coronavirus restrictions, a federal judge in Albany ruled Friday, blocking the leaders from treating houses of worship differently than businesses.

Judge Gary Sharpe wrote that de Blasio and Cuomo cannot encourage thousands of people to take to the streets to protest racial injustice while also restricting outdoor religious gatherings.

“By acting as they did, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment,” the judge wrote.

De Blasio, the judge noted, had “simultaneous pro-protest/anti-religious gathering messages” that undermined the city’s legal arguments. Cuomo similarly “applauded and encouraged protesting and discouraged others from violating the outdoor limitations.”

The judge blocked the state from enforcing any limitations on outdoor religious gatherings provided worshipers follow social-distancing requirements.

He also ruled that Cuomo and de Blasio cannot treat houses of worship differently than businesses like salons and retail stores. The city and state had allowed retail stores to operate at 50% capacity as part of its Phase 2 reopening plan while restricting houses of worship to 25% indoor capacity.

The ruling came in a suit filed by Catholic priests in the North Country and Orthodox Jewish leaders in Brooklyn, who argued the restrictions infringed on First Amendment rights. The priests said they were unable to offer Mass and other sacraments. The Orthodox Jewish congregants said they could not fulfill a religious requirement that they pray in groups of 10 men or more.


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