A federal appeals court struck down strict limits on gatherings in houses of worship in New York on Monday.
A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit struck down the limits put in place by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ruling that Cuomo’s lockdown “discriminates against religion on its face” by setting unfair restrictions on churches and synagogues while businesses deemed essential were allowed to operate, according to the New York Post.
Cuomo’s restrictions had limited the size of religious gatherings to 10 people or 25% capacity in so-called virus “red” zones, and to 25 people or 33% capacity in “orange” zones. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America, and two synagogues sued the state over the order, arguing that it trampled their right to free exercise of religion.
“The restrictions challenged here specially and disproportionately burden religious exercise” and violate the First Amendment, the court ruled. “We conclude that [Cuomo’s] Order discriminates against religion on its face.”
“No public interest is served by maintaining an unconstitutional policy when constitutional alternatives are available to achieve the same goal,” the ruling continued.
The loss in federal court comes after the Supreme Court issued Cuomo an earlier defeat in the case and placed a stay on him enforcing his lockdown. In a November 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court backed the challenge to Cuomo’s edict. At the time, Cuomo had dismissed the court’s ruling as “irrelevant of any practical impact because of the zone they were talking about is moot.”
“Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID–19 but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services,” the Supreme Court decision said. “Among other things, the maximum attendance at a religious service could be tied to the size of the church or synagogue. Almost all of the 26 Diocese churches immediately affected by the Executive Order can seat at least 500 people, about 14 can accommodate at least 700, and 2 can seat over 1,000. Similarly, Agudath Israel of Kew Garden Hills can seat up to 400. It is hard to believe that admitting more than 10 people to a 1,000–seat church or 400–seat synagogue would create a more serious health risk than the many other activities that the State allows.”
“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area,” the ruling asserts. “But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure.”
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