Federal Judge Upholds Constitutional Challenge To Cuomo’s COVID-19 Religious Gathering Restrictions

(Please note that this commentary has been revised and updated as of July 2, 2020.)

On June 26, 2020, a federal judge in the Northern District of New York issued a preliminary injunction barring the enforcement of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 restrictions on worship services against five plaintiffs.

In Soos v. Cuomo, two Catholic priests and three Orthodox Jews challenged the constitutionality of the Governor’s COVID-19-related executive actions regarding worship services. As discussed in a previous Albany Update, the plaintiffs argued that the Governor, Attorney General Letitia James, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments by placing limits on both indoor and outdoor religious services that were more severe than the limits placed on other activities. The plaintiffs also argued that the Governor’s various COVID-19 orders were unevenly enforced.

Hon. Gary L. Sharpe, U.S.D.J. issued a preliminary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs. (According to TheFreeDictionary.com, a preliminary injunction is a court order that bars one or more parties to a case from engaging in certain acts until the case has been concluded.) Judge Sharpe’s injunction restrained the defendants “(1) from enforcing any indoor gathering limitations against plaintiffs greater than imposed for Phase 2 industries, provided that plaintiffs follow social distancing requirements as set forth in the applicable executive orders and guidance; and (2) from enforcing any limitation for outdoor gatherings provided that participants in such gatherings follow social distancing requirements as set forth in the applicable executive orders and guidance.” This means that the plaintiffs may hold outdoor religious gatherings with unlimited participants so long as social distancing is practiced. Based on the state’s Phase II guidance material, it also means that the plaintiffs may hold indoor religious services at 50% capacity.

Judge Sharpe explained that there was no valid reason for the government to allow nonessential businesses in Phase II regions to operate at 50% capacity while permitting houses of worship in the same regions to operate at only 25% capacity. Similarly, the judge took issue with the state’s inconsistency. While strict limits on outdoor worship services have been enforced, the state has allowed graduation ceremonies of up to 150 people; furthermore, both Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have expressed approval of recent mass protests across the state. Judge Sharpe held that the plaintiffs were likely to eventually prevail on their claims under the Free Exercise Clause.

What does this injunction mean for other houses of worship? Does it apply to all churches throughout the state? The answer is no, not necessarily. Judge Sharpe’s injunction applies only to the five plaintiffs and three defendants in the Soos case. While other federal judges might find the Judge’s reasoning persuasive when they hear similar cases, his decision in this case is not mandatory authority; that is, courts and judges are not obliged to follow it in other cases. If another lawsuit were filed against Gov. Cuomo, Attorney General James, and Mayor de Blasio to challenge the COVID-19 restrictions on worship services, a different judge might reach a different result. Furthermore, the Judge’s injunction is a preliminary one, not a final one. Nevertheless, this result shows that at least one federal judge is recognizing the unfair treatment to which persons of faith and houses of worship in New York are being subjected during the COVID-19 pandemic.