Back in November, Albany Update commented on a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo) that struck down Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s arbitrary and excessive COVID-19 restrictions affecting houses of worship. The high court temporarily stayed the enforcement of Gov. Cuomo’s 10- and 25-person limit on in-person church attendance in certain COVID-19 “cluster zones,” and the case was sent back to a lower court for further consideration.
There are new and positive developments in this case.
In recent weeks, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has taken further action to protect New Yorkers against Gov. Cuomo’s infringements upon their religious liberty. As reported in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, a three-judge Second Circuit panel “ruled against Cuomo’s 10- and 25-person limits on houses of worship in state-designated ‘red’ and ‘orange’ zones, overturning a lower court’s ruling and granting a request from Catholic and Orthodox Jewish organizations to have the limits invalidated.” Based on the Supreme Court’s decision in November, the court found that the Governor’s order imposed greater limits upon religious activity than upon secular activity. The court’s ruling bars the state from enforcing the per-person limits as the lawsuit proceeds. Furthermore, the court even questioned whether the Governor’s 25% and 33% capacity limits also offend the First Amendment. The case has been referred back to a trial court for a decision on the constitutionality of the Governor’s percentage limits on church occupancy in cluster zones.
In mid-December, before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals released its decision, the New York Law Journal reported that the State “quietly told” the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that it would “abide by the Supreme Court’s injunction and [would] not impose 10- and 25-person capacity limits on houses of worship in zones across New York.” This means that churches located in red or orange cluster zones (click here or here to find out if your church is located in a cluster zone) are not subject to 10-person or 25-person capacity limits. As of January 15, 2021, churches in yellow cluster zones are subject to a 50% capacity limit.
New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms is thankful for these positive developments. We continue to urge churches to exercise wisdom and patience in regard to worship services during the pandemic. We also encourage Gov. Cuomo to respect the First Amendment, and to treat churches as partners—not adversaries—in the fight against COVID-19.