On June 24, 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that five of New York’s 10 regions—Central New York, the Finger Lakes, the Mohawk Valley, the North Country, and the Southern Tier—were expected to enter Phase IV of the New York Forward re-opening plan on Friday, June 26.
The Governor also announced that limits on non-essential gatherings in such regions will rise from their current level (25 individuals) to 50 individuals. Furthermore, COVID-19 limits on worship services will be relaxed to allow 33% occupancy in Phase IV regions.
In his announcement, Gov. Cuomo declared, “‘Our approach has been vindicated and the phased reopening based on facts is working.’” While New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms is thankful for the continued reduction in COVID-19 deaths in the Empire State, we find it objectionable that churches and other houses of worship are being placed in the same re-opening category as museums, aquariums, art galleries, and historic sites. Worse yet, church re-opening has been placed at a lower priority than the re-opening of restaurants, barber shops, and hair salons—all of which have already been allowed to re-open at 50% capacity in the nine regions that have reached Phase III. The problem here is twofold. First, the Governor’s re-opening plan draws arbitrary distinctions. (What makes it safer to re-open a restaurant than it is to re-open a museum?) Second, and more importantly, the First Amendment does not protect hair salons or museums from government interference; it does, however, protect the free exercise of religion.
NYCF calls upon Gov. Cuomo to remove attendance restrictions on houses of worship altogether in Phase IV regions, and to empower church leaders to make their own decisions on how best to protect their congregants.