ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo accused the U.S. Supreme Court of political partisanship Thursday after the justices narrowly rejected his coronavirus-based restrictions on religious services. He played down the impact of the ruling, suggesting that it was a reflection of the court’s emboldened new conservative majority.
Regardless of the governor’s interpretation, the decision by the Supreme Court late Wednesday to suspend the 10- and 25-person capacity limitations on churches and other houses of worship in New York would seem to be a sharp rebuke to Cuomo, who had previously won a series of legal battles over his emergency powers.
“You have a different court, and I think that was the statement that the court was making,” the governor said, noting worries in some quarters after President Donald Trump nominated three conservative justices on the Supreme Court in the past four years. “We know who he appointed to the court. We know their ideology.”
Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, insisted that the 5-4 decision “doesn’t have any practical effect” because the restrictions on religious services in Brooklyn, as well as similar ones in Queens and the city’s northern suburbs, had since been eased after the positive test rates in those areas had declined.
But less stringent capacity restrictions, also rejected by the Supreme Court’s decision, are still in place in six other counties, including in Staten Island.
After Cuomo’s remarks, Beth Garvey, his legal counsel, said that the state believed the court’s opinion affected only the now-lapsed restrictions in Brooklyn, and that the other six zones would remain intact. Still, she added that officials would “be looking around the state at the other zones” and evaluating capacity restrictions in the most infected areas, also suggesting the state would continue to argue the case at a lower court level.
Legal experts said that despite the governor’s assertion that the decision was limited to parishes and other houses of worship in Brooklyn, the court’s ruling could be used to challenge and overturn other restrictions elsewhere. “The decision is applicable to people in similar situations,” said Norman Siegel, a constitutional lawyer and former leader of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s applicable to any synagogue, any church, to any mosque, to any religious setting.”
The decision represented something of a Thanksgiving gift for Catholics and Orthodox Jews, who had blasted Cuomo’s rules as a profound and unfair restriction on their First Amendment freedom of religion.
“I have said from the beginning the restrictions imposed by Gov. Cuomo were an overreach that did not take into account the size of our churches or the safety protocols that have kept parishioners safe,” said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn on Thursday morning, noting that Catholics had adhered to coronavirus safety protocols at Mass since the virus first emerged in New York in March. “Our churches have not been the cause of any outbreaks.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan also hailed the decision, saying in a tweet, “Our churches are essential.”
The joy at the high court’s decision was shared in Orthodox Jewish enclaves, which had been a focal point of the restrictions last month after spikes of coronavirus cases in those communities. Those increases, after months of successful suppression of the virus, prompted the governor’s capacity restrictions to be put in place in early October on houses of worship — of any denomination — in Brooklyn, Queens and two of the city’s northern suburbs, Rockland and Orange counties.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella group that had also sued to overturn the rules, said in a statement: “This is a historic victory. This landmark decision will ensure that religious practices and religious institutions will be protected from government edicts that do not treat religion with the respect demanded by the Constitution.”
The restrictions, which were color-coded and multitiered, had led to angry protests in some Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods and even suffused the presidential race, as Trump suggested on Twitter that such unrest and the police response was emblematic of the “radical left.” On Thursday, the president retweeted a report about the Supreme Court’s decision, with a two-word, all-caps message: “HAPPY THANKSGIVING!”
The rules prompted almost immediate legal challenges: In particular, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn had asked the courts for relief from two specific restrictions on areas in which infection rates were especially high. In these areas, so-called red zones, houses of worship were limited to 10 people (or 25% of their building’s capacity, whichever number was less); and in “orange zones,” a 25-person cap (or 33% of capacity) was announced.
In an interview last week, DiMarzio said the rules — which apply not just to the presence of worshippers but also to priests and other staff — effectively closed churches in red and orange zones. That was a concern echoed by Jewish groups.
“The issue is that the size of our churches allow for many more than 10 or 25 people at a time to safely be there,” said the bishop, whose diocese covers both Queens and Brooklyn, representing an estimated 1.5 million Catholics. “These are not little places. They’re big churches, 800, 900, 1,000 people or more can be seated at a time.”
The Brooklyn diocese requested an injunction from the Supreme Court on Nov. 9, after losing challenges at lower federal levels, saying that Cuomo’s order ran “roughshod over” the rights of Catholic parishioners.
Cuomo, a Catholic, had asked for understanding from both the church and Jewish organizations, saying that while he understood their concerns, such restrictions were necessary to stem the second wave of the virus. In recent weeks, the governor has also sought to limit other activities, announcing a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people inside private residences, and setting a statewide curfew of 10 p.m. for bars, restaurants and gyms.
Still, the second wave seems to have arrived: On Thursday, the governor announced that the state now has more than 3,000 people in the hospital with the illness, as rates of infection have surged across the state. Cuomo also announced 67 deaths, the highest daily toll since mid-June.
The governor’s “micro-cluster” restrictions, which also included limits on schools, dining and nonessential businesses, have now been put in effect in 16 counties around the state, including portions of all five boroughs of New York City, Long Island and other suburbs.
The state currently has six “orange zones,” including one in Staten Island, and four in upstate New York. Westchester County, which was an early center of infections in the state, is also seeing such restrictions.
None of the original four counties that prompted the governor’s restrictions on houses of worship are currently subject to such rules, something noted in the dissent to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision. But religious leaders in Brooklyn and elsewhere had worried that such rules could be reinstituted if the virus flared again.
Both Catholic and Jewish leaders insisted that their communities had and would continue to abide social distancing and other restrictions.
“Our churches have been otherwise eager partners with the state in protecting the health of our parishioners, clergy, staff and surrounding communities during this devastating pandemic,” said Dennis Poust, a spokesperson for the New York State Catholic conference. “That will continue, as protecting the vulnerable is a pro-life principle.”
The legal dispute has been animated by tensions dating back to March over what secular officials consider to be an essential service at a time of crisis.
Faith leaders had been particularly offended since the spring that houses of worship were closed during the initial lockdown while liquor stores were allowed to remain open. For many of the faithful, the idea that authorities would allow someone to stock up on vodka but stop them from kneeling in a pew was offensive.
Last week, DiMarzio described it as “a difference of understanding about what values society is built on” that was especially acute at a time when the pandemic has killed more than 33,000 people in New York.
“We are essential to the spiritual health of people,” DiMarzio said. “Bodily health is important, but we are essential also, and we’re being considered not essential. And that’s why these restrictions that were put on us.”
Zwiebel echoed this, saying that he had attended synagogue Thursday morning. “I go on a regular basis,” he said. “But it was especially meaningful today.”
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