US judge upholds COVID-19 limits on places of worship in NY state

The restrictions were challenged by ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, which claimed their community was unfairly targeted.

New York state reported 1,592 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, according to the state's health department [Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

A United States federal judge in Brooklyn, New York on Friday upheld Governor Andrew Cuomo’s strict measures limiting meetings in places of worship, drawing ire from members of the state’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

Federal District Court Judge Kiyo A Matsumoto ruled from the bench that restrictions limiting indoor gatherings in severe “red” COVID-19 infection zones to 10 people do not violate freedom of religious practice, as guaranteed under the US constitution.

Several ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are located in the so-called “red zones”, which include Brooklyn, Queens and southern New York City suburbs.

A group of organisations including Agudath Israel of America filed a lawsuit on Thursday challenging the restrictions, which were mandated through an executive order signed by Cuomo on October 6.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn filed a similar lawsuit against the governor the same day.

The religious groups said that the state’s limits on indoor gatherings unfairly targeted houses of worship and violated their congregants’ freedom to practice their beliefs.

How can we ignore the compelling state interest in protecting the health and life of all New Yorkers?

by Kiyo A Matsumoto, US Federal District Court Judge

However, as COVID-19 cases spike in the state, the court ruled these limits were acceptable. Matsumoto rejected a request for an injunction, Agudath Israel of America wrote on its website, meaning that the restrictions will remain in place as the lawsuits proceed.

“How can we ignore the compelling state interest in protecting the health and life of all New Yorkers?” Matsumoto asked, according to The New York Times.

In a statement Friday, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, called the decision “disappointing”.

“Of course we understand the importance of taking precautionary measures against COVID-19, but there are ways to do so without totally disrupting our ability to use our shuls,” Zwiebel said.

Kalman Yeger, a New York City councilman who has been critical of the lockdown measures, tweeted that the court’s ruling was “unfortunate”.

Yeger represents Borough Park, a neighbourhood of Brooklyn that this week saw large protests by members of the ultra-Orthodox community who were angered by the new stricter curbs on gatherings.

“It is simply mind-boggling that a 4,000 person capacity house of worship should have the same limitation as a 40 person capacity house of worship!” Yeger wrote.

Surge in cases

In the lawsuit filed on Thursday, a group of rabbis said they had already implemented measures to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19 in accordance with state mandates.

“There is simply no justification for the unwarranted, unnecessary and unconstitutional restrictions imposed this week,” wrote attorneys for Agudath Israel of America.

Cuomo, for his part, said at a Tuesday press conference that he consulted with ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders ahead of the decision. “I asked for them to work with me to follow these guidelines and that was positively received,” he told reporters.

New York saw 1,592 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, according to the state’s health department. The state has seen over 471,000 positive cases since the pandemic began.

A COVID-19 testing tent is set up on a sidewalk in a predominantly ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York City [John Minchillo/AP]

While the “red zone” areas in four counties are home to 2.8 percent of New York state’s total population, they account for 19.7 percent of all positive COVID-19 cases reported over the last three weeks, Cuomo said on Friday.

“Areas in hot spot communities, predominantly in Brooklyn, Queens and Rockland and Orange Counties, will continue to be [the] subject of focused testing efforts including access to rapid testing machines,” the governor’s website quoted him as saying.

The restrictions were put in place as three Jewish holidays – Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzereth and Simhat Torah – will be celebrated this weekend.

Source: Al Jazeera