Catholics, Jews Say NY COVID-19 Restrictions Violate Religious Rights

A member of New York City Test and Trace Corp. hands out masks to Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, New York, U.S., October 9, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Peter Szekely

Catholics and Jews asked U.S. courts on Thursday to overturn New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order limiting worship to no more than 10 congregants in communities hard hit by the coronavirus, calling the measure a threat to religious freedom.

At a three-and-half-hour hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis said he hoped to rule by Friday on a request by Brooklyn’s Roman Catholic diocese for a preliminary injunction voiding the restrictions.

In a 33-page complaint, laced with historical references to persecution, three Orthodox Jewish congregations told a U.S. District Court in Manhattan that Cuomo had outlawed “all but the most minimal communal religious worship.”

“For Jews, communal worship is an essential service for which untold thousands have risked and sacrificed their lives,” the congregations, Ohalei Shem D’Nitra, Yesheos Yakov and Netzach Yisroel, wrote.

In the Catholic case, Bishop Raymond Chappetto testified the diocese had imposed social-distancing and other safety measures beyond state requirements, including placing communion wafers in congregants’ hands rather than on their tongues.

Chappetto, who said he knew of no COVID-19 outbreaks in his 26 parishes affected by Cuomo’s order, said weekly Mass was obligatory for Catholics and it was “absolutely essential” that they be there in person.

Lawyers for the diocese argued there was no rational basis for the order. They said the infection outbreaks were occurring in Jewish ultra-Orthodox communities, not among Brooklyn Catholics.

Attorney Seth Farber, representing the state, said the restrictions, which expire on Nov. 2, were targeted at areas where infections erupted without regard to religious considerations.

Cuomo’s Oct. 6 order shut down non-essential businesses and restricted gatherings at religious institutions to as few as 10 people in targeted areas, including some Brooklyn neighborhoods where infections have spiked.

Cuomo insisted his measures were not intended to single out religious groups and were consistent with other steps in geographic clusters he called “red zones.”

But he also blamed the Orthodox Jewish communities for spreading infection, telling a Thursday briefing: “They never complied with any of the close-down rules going back to March.”

Related Story: NY Limits Activity in Lawrence, Inwood Amid COVID-19 Hot Spot Response

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