A U.S. federal judge sided with houses of worship Friday in an injunction against New York officials, saying it’s likely unconstitutional to restrict churches and synagogues to 25 percent capacity while allowing recent protests and not similarly restricting businesses.
The lawsuit was filed by the Thomas More Society on behalf of two Catholic priests and three Jewish congregants against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, claiming a violation of the First Amendment’s protections of free exercise of religion and free speech and freedom to assemble, as well as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
An order by Cuomo limits houses of worship to 25 percent capacity during the pandemic.
Judge Gary L. Sharpe, in a 38-page decision, ruled the houses of worship had demonstrated a likelihood to succeed in their lawsuit.
Houses of worship, Sharpe wrote, had been singled out by the state’s orders.
“On its face, the 25% indoor capacity limitation applies only to houses of worship,” wrote Sharpe, who was nominated by President George W. Bush. “… “[I]n other words, no other secular entity, save for those that remain closed in their entirety until Phase 4 or beyond, are limited to only 25% capacity.”
Sharpe also criticized Cuomo and de Blasio for limiting houses of worship while supporting mass gatherings of protesters.
“Governor Cuomo’s comments, which applauded and encouraged protesting and discouraged others from violating the outdoor limitations, likely demonstrate the creation of a de facto exemption,” Sharpe wrote. “... Mayor de Blasio … has also actively encouraged participation in protests and openly discouraged religious gatherings and threatened religious worshipers.”
Further, Sharpe ruled the state’s orders exceeded the “broad limits” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts referenced in a May decision. Roberts, in that opinion, ruled against a California church and said states have wide latitude or “broad limits” to protect public health during a pandemic. New York had exceeded those limits, Sharpe wrote in his decision.
Thomas More Society special counsel Christopher Ferrara applauded the decision.
“We are pleased that Judge Sharpe was able to see through the sham of Governor Cuomo’s ‘Social Distancing Protocol’ which went right out the window as soon as he and Mayor de Blasio saw a mass protest movement they favored taking to the streets by the thousands,” Ferrara said. “Suddenly, the limit on ‘mass gatherings’ was no longer necessary to ‘save lives.’ … This decision is an important step toward inhibiting the suddenly emerging trend of exercising absolute monarchy on pretext of public health. What this kind of regime really meant in practice is freedom for me, but not for thee.”
Photo courtesy: Emiliano Bar/Unsplash
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.