Federal Court Strikes Down NY Gov. Cuomo’s Attendance Limits on Houses of Worship

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An executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo that imposed percentage-based capacity limits on houses of worship in areas of New York with high COVID-19 rates has been struck down by a federal judge.

According to The Jerusalem Post, the Tuesday morning ruling by the Brooklyn District Court constitutes a major victory for the state’s many Orthodox Jews, many of which are located within New York City.

As we have previously reported, the US Supreme Court and 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals had blocked some of Cuomo’s restrictions last year.

Cuomo’s executive order was first enacted in October and limited attendance at houses of worship in areas with high COVID test positivity rates to just 25% and 33% of the building capacity. Both advocacy organization Agudath Israel and the Brooklyn Catholic Diocese sought an emergency injunction against the order from the US Supreme Court.

The Jerusalem Post reports:

The court, with its new conservative majority, ruled in favor of Agudah and the diocese in November, saying that Cuomo’s limits on cluster zones favored secular establishments like liquor stores over houses of worship by only imposing capacity restrictions on the latter and treating the former as “essential.” Restrictions that kept services to 10 people or fewer, regardless of the size of the house of worship, were eliminated.

The high court also ordered an appeals court to reevaluate an earlier ruling that allowed the restrictions. In December, the federal appeals court ruled similarly to the Supreme Court that the capacity limits on houses of worship in light of higher COVID-19 cases was a violation of religious liberty.

The appellate court then referred the case back to the district court to decide if the percentage capacity limits were needed to accomplish Cuomo’s goal of curbing coronavirus.

The district court blocked those percentage capacity limits on Tuesday, leaving houses of worship subject to the 50% capacity limit that was in place before Cuomo’s zone-based plan.

“There was never any legitimate reason to treat religious worship less favorably than office work and shopping,” said Avi Schick, Agudath Israel’s attorney in the case against the governor. “We are grateful that religious practice has been restored to its constitutionally mandated place as an essential activity.”

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