In recent months, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 restrictions on churches and other houses of worship in cluster zones have met with disapproval from the Supreme Court of the United States and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
On February 8, Gov. Cuomo’s losing streak continued. U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto of the Eastern District of New York handed down an order finding that the Governor’s red and orange cluster zone restrictions on houses of worship violated the U.S. Constitution. Those restrictions, found in Executive Order 202.68, limited worship services as follows: Ten individuals or 25% of maximum building occupancy, whichever figure is lower, in red zones; and 25 individuals or 33% of maximum occupancy, whichever figure is lower, in orange zones.
According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Gov. Cuomo “asked the judge to rule against him and end the restrictions”; he also “faced the prospect of Dr. Howard Zucker, New York’s commissioner of health, having to testify on the witness stand.” The court’s order states that the Governor agreed to an injunction against the enforcement of the percentage capacity limits in houses of worship located in red and orange zones; it adds that the Governor’s attorneys have informed the court that Executive Order 202.68 will, by the end of February, be amended to remove houses of worship altogether.
A word of caution is in order regarding the court’s order. As of February 11, 2021, no red or orange cluster zones were in effect in the State of New York. Only five cluster zones remain in effect, and those cluster zones are all yellow zones. Yellow zones are unaffected by the court’s order. (For maps of the existing cluster zones, please click here.) Therefore, the order does not relax any restrictions that currently affect New York’s houses of worship.
The status of COVID-19 restrictions on houses of worship in New York is as follows: Houses of worship located in yellow cluster zones are limited to 50% of capacity. In November 2020, the Cuomo administration informally indicated that houses of worship statewide are also limited to 50% of capacity; however, the Cuomo administration has not been bothered to update the state’s website, which still states that houses of worship are limited to 33% of capacity.
While the court’s action has no immediate impact on churches, it will discourage the Cuomo administration from imposing excessive or draconian COVID-19 restrictions on churches in the future.