On Thursday, Oct. 8, two separate lawsuits were filed by New York City religious groups challenging the constitutionality of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new lockdown order. The order significantly limits the number of people allowed to congregate within places of worship in communities that have a growing number of Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) cases.
The lawsuits were filed in a federal court in Brooklyn by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, which represents the Catholic Church in Brooklyn and Queens, and Agudath Israel of America, a Queens-based organization that advocates for the rights of Orthodox Jews in the United States.
For weeks, state officials have been tracking an increase in COVID-19 cases in parts of Queens, Rockland, Orange and Kings (Brooklyn) counties. According to these officials, many of the worst affected areas are home to large communities of Orthodox Jews.
According to Cuomo’s new regulations, places of worship in communities with the highest positivity rates, known as red zones, will only be able to operate at 25 percent capacity or a maximum of 10 people. Places of worship in less severe hot zones, or orange zones, will be capped at 25 people or 33 percent capacity.
Agudath Israel is asking the court for a temporary restraining order because Cuomo’s restrictions will prevent New York’s Orthodox Jewish community from celebrating three important Jewish holidays: Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. As Cuomo’s new guidelines take effect on Thursday, the beginning of Hoshana Rabbah, Agudath further believes that his administration is unfairly targeting the state’s Orthodox Jewish community.
Furthermore, Agudath alleges that Cuomo is unfairly targeting the state’s Orthodox Jewish community because he once threatened that “the state will take action” if the “Orthodox community” does not abide by the new regulations. This, they argue, is placing an undue burden on the Orthodox Jewish community.
Meanwhile, the Diocese of Brooklyn is suing on the basis that the restrictions are unconstitutional because they impede on a person’s ability to freely practice their religion.
“It appears the Governor may have been responding to certain press reports documenting COVID-19 outbreaks within the Jewish community,” reads the Diocese of Brooklyn’s lawsuit. “Despite his focus on COVID-19 outbreaks in certain geographically concentrated, socially insular religious communities located within the targeted areas … the Governor has made no attempt to ameliorate the disproportionate hardship the Initiative will effect on other communities, like the Diocese’s faith community.”
Religious communities had “no other option” but to sue
In a statement in regards to their lawsuit, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said that the diocese has been left with no other option but to take the matter to court.
“Our churches have the capacity to accommodate many worshippers and to reset our attendance capacity to 10 people maximum in the red zone, and 25 people in the orange zone when we have had no significant cases, [this restriction] impedes our right to worship and cannot stand,” he said. “The state has completely disregarded the fact that our safety protocols have worked.”
New York City’s churches reopened on July 5 for weekend masses. Prior to this, the Diocese of Brooklyn had worked with New York City’s Office of Emergency Management to develop a plan to safely reopen all of the city’s places of worship.
“This is something which is very devastating to communities of faith,” said Rabbi Chaim David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, echoing DiMarzio. “Why in the world would a large shul [synagogue] with a large capacity be treated the same as a small shul?”
Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said in a statement that the governor was not concerned and that they get sued almost every day for every decision the governor’s office makes. Instead of worrying, Azzopardi said that Cuomo would continue to focus on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in New York’s hot spots. (Related: New York Exodus: New Yorkers leaving in droves due to crime, overreaching coronavirus restrictions and high taxes.)
Along with limiting attendance in places of worship, Cuomo’s latest restrictions are also shutting down hundreds of schools in Brooklyn and Queens for two weeks. This includes private schools run by the diocese and by the Orthodox Jewish community. Both parents and educators alike have also protested to these closures, saying that their respective institutions have been complying with proper COVID-19 health protocols and have had very few or no recent cases.
Orthodox Jewish community takes to streets to protest restrictions
One of the nine neighborhoods being designated as red zones, Borough Park has seen several nights of unrest as the area’s Orthodox Jewish community protests the restrictions which it sees as a form of targeted harassment due to the strict rules against congregating in places of worship. Borough Park has one of the largest communities of Orthodox Jews outside of Israel.
Protesters have lit bonfires in the middle of the street where people throw their face masks in an act of defiance against Cuomo’s mask mandate. Many have also been seen dancing, singing, waving Trump campaign flags and holding signs that said “We will not comply.” Some of the protesters believe that the new lockdowns are an anti-Trump plot cooked up by New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.
“He knows that most of the Jews are gonna vote for Trump, and he doesn’t want that to happen,” said Rachel Aviv, a resident of Midwood a neighborhood directly southeast of Borough Park. “So, he thinks that if he locks us down and keeps us in our homes, then we will not be able to go out and vote.”
These protests have gotten so chaotic that one journalist, Jacob Kornbluh of the Jewish Insider, reported being “brutally assaulted” by unspecified members of the crowd. He said they hit him in the head and kicked him several times while yelling obscenities at him, such as “Hitler” and “Nazi.”
City and state officials and organizations have come out to condemn the assault on the journalist. Mayor De Blasio called the assault “unacceptable” and said that the people who attacked Kornbluh must be held accountable. Meanwhile, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) said that they’re investigating the matter and added that violence of any kind would not be tolerated.
City councilmember Kalman Yeger, a Democrat, said that the attack was not representative of the people of New York City. Meanwhile, state senator Simcha Felder, another Democrat, condemned the violence; however, she said that the governor’s recent actions were “constitutionally questionable” given how they seem to disproportionately affect the city’s Orthodox Jewish community.
Learn more about how state and local governments are using the pandemic to push through unnecessary and overly-restrictive lockdown regulations by reading the latest articles at Pandemic.news.