Cuomo Guidance Places Excessive Burden Upon Religious Expression

May 20, 2020 UPDATE: Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York Forward plan, the Governor intends to lift COVID-19-related restrictions on business and other activities through a four-phase, region-by-region process. On May 19, 2020, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms joined pastors across the State of New York in calling upon Gov. Cuomo to (a) lift restrictions on worship services in regions that have not been severely impacted by the pandemic; and (b) lift restrictions on worship services as part of Phase Two, not Phase Four, of New York Forward in other regions. On May 20, 2020, Gov. Cuomo announced that religious gatherings of up to 10 people would be allowed beginning on May 21, 2020; however, the Governor added that large religious services would not be allowed to resume until a given region of the state had reached Phase Four of the New York Forward plan. Gov. Cuomo has encouraged faith communities to consider holding parking lot services or drive-in services.

A guidance document released by Gov. Andrew Cuomo asserts that a temporary ban on “non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason” due to the COVID-19 pandemic applies to worship services.

The guidance document includes the following language:

“Pursuant to Executive Order 202.10, all non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reasons (e.g. worship services, parties, celebrations, or other social events) are canceled or postponed. Congregate services within houses of worship are prohibited. Houses of worship may only be used by individuals and only where appropriate social distancing of, at least, six feet between people can be maintained. Further, individuals should not gather in houses of worship, homes, or other locations for religious services until the end of this public health emergency. If possible, religious leaders should consider alternative forms of worship, replacing in-person gatherings with virtual services, such as phone or conference calls, videoconference calls, or online streaming.”

New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms understands the gravity of the coronavirus epidemic. When the Governor banned public gatherings of 50 or more persons (including church services), we encouraged churches to comply with that ban and to use live streaming and similar options for worship services. We did so in an effort to respect our governing officials, to love our neighbors, and to protect our fellow Christians from the coronavirus.

NYCF does, however, oppose this guidance document in its current form. First, we object to the characterization of worship services as “non-essential gatherings.” Second, and more importantly, we find the assertion that New Yorkers should avoid gathering for worship in homes to be excessive, unnecessary, and constitutionally questionable. This language is so broad that it could be construed to bar family members from praying together at home (which, we trust, is not the Governor’s intended interpretation).

We respectfully urge Gov. Cuomo to correct these problems in the above-quoted paragraph.

We continue to encourage New York’s churches to avoid holding services in church buildings and to instead use the internet to engage in congregational prayer and worship during the pandemic.