Federal judge blocks New York’s coronavirus attendance limits for religious services


(JTA) — Synagogues and others houses of worship in New York cannot have state-imposed capacity limits lower than other gathering places, under the terms of an injunction issued Friday by a federal judge.

They also cannot have limits imposed on the size of their outdoor gatherings, as long as distancing practices are in place, ruled Judge Gary Sharpe, of the United States District Court in Albany.

Sharpe issued a preliminary injunction in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by three Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn and two Catholic priests against the city’s and state’s rules for houses of worship during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit charged that the state and city had unfairly penalized houses of worship in holding them to lower attendance caps than other indoor gatherings. Indoor religious gatherings are currently limited to 25% capacity under New York state’s reopening rules, while retail stores and industry are limited to 50% capacity. (People tend to spend more time in worship services, increasing their potential virus exposure. Multiple outbreaks can be traced to attendance at prayer services.)

The ruling does not offer a final answer to the question of whether the lower capacity limits are constitutional. But preliminary injunctions are issued when plaintiffs have convinced judges that harm would result if an existing process continues while litigation is underway, suggesting that Sharpe found their early arguments compelling.

Indeed, Sharpe pointed out that by permitting and even encouraging protests against racial injustice that drew thousands of people, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio “sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment.”

The fact that the city had allowed Black Lives Matters protests to go on while houses of worship were severely limited had been a core criticism of the plaintiffs, who drew support from the Trump administration.

“Today’s federal court decision is a win for religious freedom and the civil liberties of New Yorkers,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department said in a statement Friday. “The court’s decision is consistent with positions and arguments made by the United States Department of Justice in similar filings and letters, including in New York City and elsewhere around the country.”

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