New York’s Pandemic-Inspired Restrictions on Church and Synagogue Services Are Unconstitutional, a Federal Judge Rules
Today a federal judge in Albany, New York, ordered state and local officials to stop enforcing COVID-19 control measures that impose special restrictions on religious services. Responding to a lawsuit brought by two Roman Catholic priests from upstate New York and three Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe concluded that the state’s rules, which limit indoor services to 25 percent of capacity and outdoor gatherings to no more than 25 people, are not “generally applicable,” meaning they are subject to strict scrutiny under the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, a test they cannot satisfy.
Sharpe noted that New York has drawn several seemingly arbitrary distinctions between religious and secular activities that pose similar risks of virus transmission. “On its face,” he writes, “the 25% indoor capacity limitation applies only to houses of worship.” Meanwhile, the state is allowing “nonessential” businesses such as offices, stores, salons, and restaurants to operate at 50 percent of their capacity.
“Restaurant patrons sit and congregate with family and friends in close proximity for a lengthy period of time, and have close contact with their hosts and servers,” Sharpe notes. “Face coverings may be removed while [diners are] seated.” And when it comes to special educational services, the state has imposed no indoor limit at all during the summer term. Since “these secular businesses/activities threaten defendants’ interest in slowing the spread of COVID-19” at least as much as religious services do, Sharpe says, their preferential treatment “demonstrate[s] that the 25% indoor capacity limitation on houses of worship is underinclusive,” which “triggers strict scrutiny review.”
New York’s rules for outdoor gatherings are equally puzzling. Although the state “has specifically authorized outdoor, in-person graduation ceremonies of no more than 150 people,” Sharpe notes, the limit for outdoor religious gatherings, including funerals and weddings, is 25, regardless of the precautions that participants take. Furthermore, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, like many public health experts, endorsed and encourage
Article from Latest – Reason.com