Federal Judge: Cuomo, de Blasio wrong to limit worship services while condoning mass protests

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NEW YORK- Let’s score this one a big win for religious liberty and the Constitution, as well as proof of the sheer hypocrisy of some politicians.

On Friday, a federal judge ruled that both New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo violated the Constitution when they restricted religious services as a measure to contain the coronavirus, while at the same time condoning mass protests, many of which turned violent, across the state.

National Review is reporting that U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe issued a temporary injunction whereby New York is prohibited from enforcing its draconian restrictions on religious services. Under current restrictions, religious services are limited to only 25 percent capacity, while the next phase of the state’s reopening will increase that capacity to 33 percent.

In a 38-page decision, Sharpe said, in part:

“It is not the judiciary’s role to second guess the likes of Gov. Cuomo or Mayor de Blasio when it comes to decisions they make in such troubling times, that is until those decisions result in the curtailment of fundamental rights without compelling justification.”

The  New York Post said that the order bars Cuomo, de Blasio and Attorney General Letitia James from placing restrictions on outdoor religious worship gatherings.

In a scathing rebuke of Cuomo and de Blasio, Sharp blasted them for giving “preferential treatment” to the thousands of protesters who violated so-called “social distancing” guidelines while many were destroying the city, assaulting police officers and looting businesses—while using aggressive measures to go after those who attend religious services or gatherings.

“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 wrote.

“They could also have 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 had issued “simultaneous pro-protest/anti-religious gathering messages” and “actively encouraged participation in protests and openly discouraged religious gatherings and threatened religious worshipers,” Sharpe wrote in his order.

Sharpe also addressed the disconnect between social distancing rules set by the state which placed more severe restrictions on religious based events than those placed on more secular businesses.

The judge said that while offices, retail stores, salons and restaurants were allowed to open with 50% capacity, churches and synagogues are limited to only 25%.

“These secular businesses/activities threaten defendants’ interest in slowing the spread of COVID-19 to a similar or greater degree than those of plaintiffs’ and demonstrate that the 25% indoor capacity limitation on houses of worship is underinclusive and triggers strict scrutiny review,” the judge wrote.

The suit was filed by two Catholic priests and three Orthodox Jews, who sued Cuomo, de Blasio and James, while accusing them of “unprecedented abuse of power” in closing churches and other houses of worship while supporting mass protests.

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The upstate priests, Rev. Steven Soos and Rev. Nicholas Stamos, along with Brooklyn Jewish congregants Elchanan Perr, Daniel Schonborn and Mayer Mayerfield had argued that the three had “exploited the COVID-19 pandemic” and had in effect created “a veritable dictatorship” with the lockdown mandate.

The lawsuit said that the three had violated the First Amendment and due-process rights of the plaintiffs through selective enforcement of coronavirus mandates.

The suit noted that while mass protests were being allowed to take place across the Empire State, faith groups were threatened with criminal prosecution and $1000 fines for violating the restrictions on group gatherings.

The suit claimed that as mass protests took place throughout New York City which had busted the ten-person limit—which de Blasio had set for non-essential gatherings—have not been broken up by law enforcement.

In the ultimate show of the hypocrisy and targeting of religious institutions, de Blasio had addressed a large protest in Brooklyn, while only days later Hasidic Jewish children were removed from a playground in the Williamsburg section by a police officer for not abiding the ten-person limit. More so, the city actually welded the gate to the playground shut. 

Back on April 28, at the beginning of the pandemic, de Blasio specifically targeted the Jewish community, writing in a controversial tweet:

“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities is 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 the disease and saving lives. Period.”

Apparently, saving lives only applies to certain people, not to people who are destroying his city.

In his order, the judge also pointed to another example of the disconnect between religious mandates and other mandates, that of allowing 150 people to gather for school graduation ceremonies.

“This is an express limitation from the 10- or 25-person outdoor limits that apply to other situations,” he wrote, while adding, “There is nothing materially different about a graduation ceremony and a religious gatherings such that defendants’ justifications for a difference in treatment can be found compelling.”

The order issued by Sharpe blocks New York from enforcing a capacity limit on outdoor religious services, and further states that houses of worship are permitted the same 50% capacity as regular businesses. Six-foot social distancing guidelines are still required, the judge said.

Special Counsel to the Thomas More Society Christopher Ferrara, who represents the plaintiffs noted that the state had conducted an “experiment in absolute monarchy” and asked the court to block the “unconstitutional executive orders and their prejudicial enforcement.”

In responding to the decision, Ferrara said, “We are pleased that Judge Sharpe was able to see through the sham of Gov. 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

“Suddenly the limit on ‘mass gatherings’ was no longer necessary to ‘save lives.’ Yet they were continuing to ban high school graduations and other outdoor gatherings exceeding a mere 25 people.

This decision is an important step toward inhibiting the suddenly emerging trend of exercising absolute monarchy on [the] pretext of public health. What this kind of regime really meant to practice is freedom for me, but not for thee.”

The Post was told by a Cuomo spokesman that he was “reviewing” the decision.


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