Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has implemented a range of COVID-19 restrictions this year to mixed reviews from those living in the state.
One particularly controversial order, however, was recently shot down as “unconstitutional” by a Manhattan federal court judge.
“Even in a pandemic”
According to the New York Post, a Second Circuit Court of Appeals panel found that Cuomo’s limitations on religious gatherings constituted discrimination “against religion on its face.”
The decision echoed a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined New York could not impose arbitrary limits on the size of religious gatherings in the state.
“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area,” the high court acknowledged in last month’s decision. “But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
The appeals court supported that conclusion in response to Cuomo’s limitations in designated “red” and “orange” zones, which restrict houses of worship to 10 and 25 people, respectively. In a unanimous ruling, the three-judge panel found on Monday that plaintiffs in the case suffered “irreparable harm” as a result of Cuomo’s policies.
A key aspect of their decision hinged on the determination that the restrictions are more burdensome to religious institutions than secular ones.
“A clear statement”
Judge Michael Park, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote: “No public interest is served by maintaining an unconstitutional policy when constitutional alternatives are available to achieve the same goal.”
The complaint was initially filed in October by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, Agudath Israel of America, and two synagogues. In a response to the decision, an attorney representing Agudath Israel called it “a clear statement … that government can’t disfavor religious conduct merely because it sees no value in religious practice.”
Similarly, a lawyer for the diocese asserted that it was “gratified” by the ruling and leaders look forward to holding services “under strict protocols.”
For his part, Cuomo dismissed the Supreme Court decision as “irrelevant” since the restrictions had since been lifted. The ruling itself, however, noted that he could reimpose them at any time.
The governor is also facing lawsuits from restauranteurs across the state over a recent decision to shut down indoor dining, which plaintiffs have called a “death sentence” during the winter months, according to NY1.