According to U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe, the restrictions, imposed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Attorney General Letitia James last March as part of the state’s plan to slow the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Sharpe, in his preliminary injunction, noted that the state’s regulations discriminated against religious individuals by limiting their opportunities to gather and worship, in stark contrast to the relative freedom enjoyed by those who engaged in protests and riots within the state. (Related: New York’s response to the coronavirus made the pandemic worse.)
“The challenged regulations treat the class or subclass of people who exercise freedom of religion by gathering with others for that purpose, including plaintiffs, differently from the similarly situated class of people who gather with others for secular purposes, including the mass demonstrations defendants have exempted from their regulatory regime,” Sharpe, who is a George W. Bush appointee, said.
Sharpe’s ruling, which basically upends the guidelines imposed by the state regarding indoor gatherings, now allows indoor religious services to be as large as 50 percent of their full capacity, provided that other state guidelines such as social distancing are followed.
The injunction, as reported by FOX News, was issued on behalf of two Catholic priests, Steven Soos and Nicholas Stamos, as well as a trio of Orthodox Jewish congregants, Elchanan Perr, Daniel Schonborn and Mayer Mayerfeld.
The plaintiffs, represented by the Thomas More Society, previously said that the restrictions enacted by Cuomo forced Rev. Soos and Rev. Stamos to choose between turning away parishioners who wished to attend Mass and receive Communion or to hold more Masses than are possible in a single day.
The three Orthodox Jewish congregants from Brooklyn, meanwhile, alleged that the restrictions have effectively prohibited them from worshiping.
“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,” Christopher Ferrara the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said in an interview with FOX News.
Ferrera, who previously described the unequal restrictions levied by New York authorities as “an irrational targeting of houses of worship,” noted that the court’s decision is an “important step” toward inhibiting what looks to be the telltale signs of draconian authoritarianism in the state.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, called Sharpe’s decision a "win for religious freedom and the civil liberties of New Yorkers."
"Government cannot discriminate by protecting free speech and the right to assemble while threatening or limiting religious exercise – it must protect all rights guaranteed under the First Amendment,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement.
According to Dreiband, the court’s decision is consistent with positions and arguments made by the U.S. Department of Justice in similar filings and letters, including in New York City and elsewhere around the country.
“The Department of Justice will continue to support people of faith who seek equal treatment against threats and actions by public officials who discriminate against them because of their religion. The Constitution and our oath to defend and protect it require nothing less," Dreiband said.