Coronavirus

New York's Pandemic-Inspired Restrictions on Church and Synagogue Services Are Unconstitutional, a Federal Judge Rules

U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe finds that the state's COVID-19 control measures arbitrarily discriminate against religious conduct.

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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 encouraged recent protests against police brutality that attracted far more than 25 people, many of whom did not wear masks or follow social distancing guidelines.

"Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio could have just as easily discouraged protests, short of condemning their message, in the name of public health and exercised discretion to suspend enforcement for public safety reasons instead of encouraging what they knew was a flagrant disregard of the outdoor limits and social distancing rules," Sharpe writes. "They could have also been silent. But by acting as they did, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment."

De Blasio's attitude toward Jews who dared to gather outside for religious purposes was notably different. "Something absolutely unacceptable happened in Williamsburg tonite," the mayor tweeted on April 28, the day he personally led a police raid on a Hasidic rabbi's funeral in that neighborhood of Brooklyn. "When I heard, I went there myself to ensure the crowd was dispersed. And what I saw WILL NOT be tolerated so long as we are fighting the Coronavirus."

De Blasio added: "My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period."

Such discrimination against religious activities, Sharpe says, is clearly problematic under the Supreme Court's precedents regarding laws that impinge on religious freedom. The Court has said neutral, generally applicable laws that happen to restrict religious activities are consistent with the First Amendment. But it also has said laws that impose special burdens on religious activities are unconstitutional unless they are narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest that cannot be achieved through less restrictive means. In this case, Sharpe says, "defendants' generally-stated compelling interest in controlling the spread of COVID-19 is inadequate to demonstrate that they have a compelling interest that is narrowly tailored to these specific plaintiffs."

Last month, when the Supreme Court declined to issue an injunction against California's restrictions on religious services, Chief Justice John Roberts reaffirmed that state officials have wide authority to protect the public from communicable diseases. "When those officials 'undertake[] to act in areas fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties,' their latitude 'must be especially broad,'" he wrote. "Where those broad limits are not exceeded, they should not be subject to second-guessing by an 'unelected federal judiciary,' which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people."

In this case, Sharpe writes, "it is plain to this court that the broad limits of that executive latitude have been exceeded." His injunction requires Cuomo, de Blasio, and New York Attorney General Letitia James to refrain from "enforcing any indoor gathering limitations against plaintiffs" stricter than those imposed on "nonessential" businesses such as stores and salons, "provided that plaintiffs follow social distancing requirements as set forth in the applicable executive orders and guidance." Cuomo, de Blasio, and James are also forbidden to enforce "any limitation for outdoor gatherings," except for the general rules that also apply to secular gatherings.

State and city officials say they are reviewing Sharpe's decision before deciding on their next steps. Catholic League President Bill Donohue celebrated the ruling. "The Catholic League encourages people of faith to ignore all future restrictions placed on them by de Blasio and Cuomo," he said. "They exposed themselves as frauds when they gave the green light to thousands of protesters who took to the streets, night after night, while imposing draconian restrictions on the faithful….They got creamed in court, which is exactly what they deserve."

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  1. What are the Las Vegas odds on New York actually giving a damn what the court says?

    1. Seeing as how all the state laws shutting down businesses are unconstitutional and Blue states are doing it anyways…

      The lynch mobs are coming for the Democrats and they know it.

      1. Except large majorities of people embrace the lockdowns, having been scared nearly to death by the media.

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  2. This is an egregious decision.
    The State must clamp down on all people and structures that allow the antiquated form of worshiping God.
    So, let’s lets get with the program because as all true socialist know, there is only one true god, and that’s The State.
    Worshiping God only dilutes The State’s power over the masses and sets a dual deity to be worshiped.
    This has to come to a grinding halt if we are to truly control the unenlightened masses and further our noble quest to enjoy a socialist slave state.

    1. I pretty sure that was the actual rationale.

    2. To illustrate how much Blue state tyrants dont really care about Americans. These tyrants would rather throw you in jail than let you worship together.

      or go to a bar and meet people…
      or go swimming…
      or get married…
      or get sick if you want to get it over with

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  3. The entire lockdown regime is unconstitutional. Show me the part in the State Constitution of any state, or in the Federal Constitution, that empowers the government to shut down businesses and order people into house arrest without a trial.

    1. Who needs a constitution when you got John Roberts covering your ass?

      1. How many divisions does the Constitution have ?

    2. “general welfare” would be my guess at the federal level, but these are state lockdowns, so I would think state law applies

      1. General Welfare does not mean that the feds can force us to stay home or not spend money.

        If it did then all other rights are suspended.

        This is KungFlu hysteria anyway so any notion that some catastrophe would afflict the USA unless we do what the government says, is utter horseshit.

        1. General Welfare does not mean that the feds can force us to stay home or not spend money.
          What do the Nazgul have to say?

          1. Nazgul can go fuck themselves.

            They already said that the Constitution allows for forcing Americans to buy a product and that private builders can use government to eminent domain private property.

            The Nazgul as a body has no idea what the Constitution means.

            1. I leave my house when I want. I dont wear masks. I pay cash for medical services and have catastrophic health insurance. I carry insurance bonds, so I dont pay auto insurance. I dont have a Social Security number.

              1. Believable until the SS number.

      2. Once again –
        General Welfare in the context of taxation of the ‘United States’ is clearly stating the general welfare of the federal government (i.e. ‘union of states government’). The U.S. Constitution uses ‘United States’ as the name of our federal government.

        There is no ‘federal government’ wording in the constitution and there is no place ‘United States’ is referring to the people. The wording is clear as day except for those who purposely want to manipulate it.

  4. It’s amazing to me that Cuomo and Blasio’s attorneys let them get away with this shit in the first place. This is a straightforward assault on religious freedom notwithstanding Robert’s typical mealy mouthed statist apologies. I’m not even slightly religious but fuck any politician who thinks they can piss on 1A.

    1. Being criticized for violating people’s religious rights scores you points in progressive circles.

      Remember, the purpose of progressivism is to use the coercive power of government to force individuals to make sacrifices for the greater good. If you get criticized for trying to force individuals to sacrifice their religious rights for the greater good, that just means you’re a progressive in good standing. He can’t buy that kind of advertising. Hell, Cuomo may campaign for president in 2024 on the strength of having violated the First Amendment.

    2. Democrats are tyrants and now they are so desperate to remain in power that they just order people to stay home or wear masks.

      Fuck these tyrants and their day of reckoning is coming.

      1. They’re lying liars who lie about their lying lies.

        . . . and they oppose the First Amendment, which is fucking un-American.

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      2. I’ve been saying here for years that the only way the country is saved is to rid ourselves of progressives.

        They have to leave, or nothing gets fixed.

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  5. The First Amendment?!

    Don’t they know this is a Democrat state and there’s a pandemic going on?

    1. Everything is a Pandemic in the socialists mind – its the very single excuse they will use over-and-over again to over-throw the USA and re-enact slavery and dictation. From global warming to nuclear holocaust; they’ll make up emergencies if they have to.

  6. Cuomo manages to fuck it all up. And the press still covers for him. Although I am not surprised I am always impressed by the collective stupidity of the left.

  7. Is this the same fellow named Sharpe who ran for office in New York (for governor or senator, I can’t remember) on the Libertarian ticket?

  8. So law is not my thing.

    The state is imposing on the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. In New York.

    Bad idea. Those two hold the moral high ground for long before there was a USA. Both have established respected hospitals, charities and more. Do not even go there governor.

    Better choice is to work with them. I am sure Mr. Cuomo can do that.

    1. Echospinner….nice to see you here. I wish my governor, Phailing Phil Murphy, would get taken to Court to answer for his bad decisions on sending covid-19 patients to nursing homes. That lead to many deaths.

      How do we hold a man like that to account?

      1. Request, when you say “my governor” or “my state”, please note which state.

        Also, you hold them to account by voting them out.

        1. He’s talking about NJ.

      2. XY

        You and I do not need to hold anyone to account. We are talking matters of faith. Catholics and Jews on the subject of the value of human life and health need no further defense.

  9. I’m not sure why this had to go to federal court. Stick “Black Lives Matter” on the church marquee and call it a peaceful protest to end capitalism and the nuclear family, and New York would have fallen all over themselves to allow it.

    1. The Floydssiah and Covidism ARE the new religions. They must drive Christianity into the dust. No room for the old religions.

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  14. Thank you, this decision is so heartening. It’s painful to observe politicians explicitly restricting rights on a partisan basis.

  15. “…meaning they are subject to strict scrutiny under the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom…”

    If the author knew anything at all about the first amendment, he would know that the first amendment does not “guarantee” religious freedom to anybody. This is a deeply embedded lie that ignorant people like Mr. Sullum have accepted because they do not take the time to study either the Constitution or judicial history. Even the statists on the Supreme Court would not make a statement so wildly off the mark because they are very aware (indeed, more aware than anybody) of the farfetched arguments they have to make to defend their decisions.

    The First Amendment DOES NOT guarantee to Americans in all States that they will have religious freedom! The First Amendment, as well as almost all of the next seven amendments, is a limitation on the Congress of the US government. Even if you believe in the phony incorporation doctrine, you cannot honestly say that it guarantees anything other than the absence of certain legislation from the federal government. You would instead have to make a complicated, highly nuanced argument based on parts of the 14th amendment to say that the federal judiciary now has the authority to determine what rights a State must protect.

    But Jacob Sullum doesn’t bother to do any homework. He just says things that are grossly inaccurate, further misleading people who do not understand this issue.

    1. Well it turns out that the New York constitution states:

      ARTICLE I
      BILL OF RIGHTS

      §3. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this state to all humankind; and no person shall be rendered incompetent to be a witness on account of his or her opinions on matters of religious belief; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this state.

      §9. 1. No law shall be passed abridging the rights of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government, or any department thereof;

      §11. No person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws of this state or any subdivision thereof. No person shall, because of race, color, creed or religion, be subjected to any discrimination in his or her civil rights by any other person or by any firm, corporation, or institution, or by the state or any agency or subdivision of the state.

  16. So when is Cuomo being removed from office for contempt of his Oath of Office? DiBlowHard too.

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  19. Even if General welfare is provided for us. That doesn’t mean the feds should restrict us to our homes, we should have all rights to go to our place of worship https://mp3tophits.com/

    1. It’s not for “us” it for the “United States” government. … “general welfare of the United States.” ( which just so happens to be the NAME of our federal government given in the Constitution as if the power to tax didn’t give it away. )

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