Claiming New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is engaging in religious discrimination, Orthodox Jewish groups are asking the Supreme Court to freeze the Empire State’s tough restrictions on attendance at houses of worship during the ongoing pandemic.
The legal challenge comes as New York and several states have reported a dramatic uptick in cases involving the CCP virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, and on the same day—Nov. 16—that Moderna’s vaccine was reported to be 94.5 percent effective in early testing. Pfizer and BioNTech announced on Nov. 9 that their vaccine was more than 90 percent effective. The surge has prompted several states to consider imposing new lockdowns in an effort to stem the spread.
The case, an appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, is called Agudath Israel of America v. Cuomo. Agudath Israel of America describes itself as “Orthodox Jewry’s umbrella organization on our continent.” The emergency application for an injunction was brought with the legal assistance of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit and public-interest law firm.
A day after saying “religious institutions have been a problem” because they hold “super spreader events,” Cuomo, a Democrat, issued Executive Order 202.68 on Oct. 6, which launched the “Cluster Action Initiative,” essentially shutting churches and synagogues in various newly created “Red Zones” throughout New York City and elsewhere in the state. He also shut religious schools in both the “Red Zones” and in the newly designated “Orange Zones.”
The most restrictive “Red Zones” single out houses of worship and limit religious gatherings to 25 percent of capacity, but cap the number at 10 people. “Orange Zones” limit houses of worship to 33 percent of capacity but no more than 25 people, and “Yellow Zones” limit houses of worship to 50 percent.
At the same time, businesses designated essential are exempt in every zone, including retail shopping, factories, shelters, airplane travel, and numerous other activities typically involving crowds of people in confined spaces.
The emergency application for an injunction is addressed to Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who is acting circuit justice for the 2nd Circuit. The applicants are asking the court to take action by Nov. 20 at 3 p.m., a little over an hour before the Jewish Sabbath begins that day in New York City. Breyer could act on his own or refer the matter to the full court for consideration.
Cuomo’s strictures constitute “discriminatory targeting of the Orthodox Jewish community,” and the governor himself has “made clear through unambiguous statements that the [Oct. 6] order was targeted at a religious minority’s practices and traditions,” the application states.
“For six weeks and counting, Applicants have been laboring under discriminatory restrictions on their religious exercise. Their neighborhoods and religious institutions have been—in the words of the Governor himself—‘targeted.’”
Cuomo is imposing collective punishment of a sort on Orthodox Jews because some Orthodox Jews have supposedly been violating the lockdown rules, according to the filing.
“The Governor publicly asserted that other Orthodox Jews had violated his prior rules, and therefore the Governor imposed severe restrictions on worship across several Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.”
The applicants in the legal proceeding “are not alleged to have violated any public health or safety rules. To the contrary, they have carefully and successfully complied with mask requirements, social distancing, and capacity constraints. Yet the Governor’s guilt-by-religious-association restrictions have made it impossible for Applicants and their members to exercise their religious faith.”
Those restrictions “have eliminated the ability of many Jews to worship on important religious holy days. None of this is necessary to protect public health.”
A spokesperson for Cuomo couldn’t be immediately reached for comment but a spokesperson previously told The Epoch Times that the governor isn’t targeting religious groups and is trying to protect public health.
Other lawsuits aimed to overturn Cuomo’s executive order are before the federal courts.
The Becket Fund is representing two Catholic priests, two Catholic school students, and four Orthodox Jews in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.
Separately, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn is suing the state of New York, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, over Cuomo’s order.
The diocese claims the public health edict will “arbitrarily reduce capacity” at churches and violates the religious protections embodied in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
This article by Matthew Vadum appeared Nov. 17, 2020, in The Epoch Times.