Court Intervention Sought In Matter Of Religious Gathering Restrictions

On June 10, 2020, three Orthodox Jews and two Catholic priests sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in federal court.

Filed by attorneys with the Thomas More Society, the plaintiffs’ complaint in Soos v. Cuomo contended that Gov. Cuomo, Attorney General James, and Mayor de Blasio have violated the United States Constitution in connection with COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings. Specifically, the plaintiffs asserted that the defendants have violated their rights to “free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, assembly and expressive association, and due process, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.” The plaintiffs alleged that Gov. Cuomo’s executive orders and re-opening plans relating to COVID-19 have placed limits upon religious gatherings that they have not placed upon other gatherings. Furthermore, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendants have enforced the Governor’s orders unfairly by backing recent protests that violate restrictions on public gatherings.

As of June 18, 2020, the following restrictions on religious gatherings are in place in the State of New York:

  • Pursuant to Executive Orders 202.32 and 202.33, gatherings of 10 or fewer individuals for religious services or other purposes are permitted statewide, provided that Department of Health protocols for social distancing, cleaning and disinfection are followed. Furthermore, drive-in religious services are permitted in excess of the 10-person limit so long as participants do not engage in in-person contact.

According to Christopher Ferrara, Special Counsel at the Thomas More Society, Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio “‘have employed favoritism and political platforms against people of faith.’” In recent weeks, Mayor de Blasio has locked down New York’s playgrounds, but has also attended a large June 4 protest that flagrantly violated a then-existing ban on non-essential gatherings of more than 10 people. Ferrara asked, “‘Why is a large worship gathering deemed more dangerous than a mass protest, full of shouting, arm-waving people in close proximity to one another?’”

According to the New York Post, attorneys for the Governor and the Attorney General have argued that COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings comply with the First Amendment because they are neutral and generally applicable. Perplexingly, Mayor de Blasio’s attorneys have claimed that the City of New York “‘temporarily relaxed its enforcement of the gathering limitation in the context of the protests out of a need to balance public safety concerns with public health concerns.’”

New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms (NYCF) thanks the Thomas More Society for filing this lawsuit. By allowing mass protest gatherings while placing strict limits on congregational worship, the State of New York has tacitly taken the position that the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble to express political views is more important than the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. This is unacceptable, and we hope that the court will quickly grant an injunction that protects religious liberty in the State of New York.