U.S. appeals court blocks NY governor's limits on religious gatherings

Jonathan Stempel
·2-min read
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers remarks on the coronavirus disease

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The federal appeals court in Manhattan on Monday blocked New York state restrictions on the size of religious gatherings put in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

In a 3-0 decision, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America and two synagogues in enjoining New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's Oct. 6 attendance caps at "houses of worship."

The governor limited attendance to the lesser of 10 people or 25% capacity in "red" zones where the coronavirus risk was highest, and 25 people or 33% capacity in slightly less risky "orange" zones, even in buildings that seat hundreds.

Circuit Judge Michael Park said the plaintiffs established irreparable harm by showing the restrictions impaired their free exercise of religion.

He also said "no public interest is served by maintaining an unconstitutional policy when constitutional alternatives are available to achieve the same goal."

Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Monday's decision followed the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling on Nov. 25 against enforcing the caps.

The majority, comprising most of the court's conservative wing, said the restrictions "strike at the very heart of the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty," and that "even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten."

Cuomo has said that ruling had no practical effect because some restrictions were lifted as COVID-19 flare-ups eased.

The appeals court returned Agudath Israel's case to a Brooklyn federal judge to decide, under a "strict scrutiny" standard, whether the 25% and 33% limits were constitutional.

Avi Schick, a lawyer for Agudath Israel, said Monday's decision "will be felt way beyond the COVID context. It is a clear statement ... that government can't disfavor religious conduct merely because it sees no value in religious practice."

Randy Mastro, the diocese's lawyer, said the diocese was "gratified," and will welcome parishioners to mass "under strict protocols" that keep them safe.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Aurora Ellis)