Governor Allows For Religious Gatherings Of Ten Or Less

Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that religious gatherings of up to 10 people could resume beginning on May 21, 2020. Prior to the Governor’s announcement, all “non-essential” gatherings of persons—a term which included worship services, according to a state guidance document—had been banned in New York due to the COVID-19 pandemic since the issuance of Executive Order No. 202.10 on March 23, 2020.

Following that order, the state has released new guidelines for churches and other houses of worship.

In recent days, Gov. Cuomo faced increasing pressure from voters, pastors, and the media to relax his restrictions on religious activities. On May 19, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms (NYCF) sent an open letter to the Governor that was signed by 300 pastors; the letter called 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 the Governor’s New York Forward plan in other regions. On the same date, more than 1,000 New York voters used NYCF’s website to e-mail a similar message to the Governor. (Please click here to e-mail the Governor through our website.)

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In his announcement, Gov. Cuomo emphasized that masks must be worn and social distancing must be practiced during religious gatherings. Furthermore, he added that religious services involving more than 10 individuals—like other mass gatherings—will not be allowed to resume until a given region of the state has reached Phase Four of the New York Forward plan. Finally, the Governor noted that “the state is also encouraging religious communities to consider having drive-in and parking lot services.”

NYCF views the Governor’s action as an attempt to appease faith communities by making a minor gesture in our direction that falls far short of what is needed. A continued ban on worship services of more than 10 people effectively prevents all but the smallest churches from holding in-person services. There is no public health reason to bar churches in areas that have not been significantly affected by the pandemic from holding in-person services, provided that health and safety precautions are taken. In regions that have been hit harder by COVID-19, we continue to believe that in-person worship services could resume during Phase Two—not Phase Four—of Gov. Cuomo’s New York Forward plan. If a given region is deemed safe enough to resume commercial activities like banking, real estate, law, and some retail, that region should also be deemed safe enough for church services. Relegating in-person worship services to Phase Four of New York Forward could unnecessarily discourage or prevent churches from holding services for several more weeks. Also, the Governor’s 10-person limitation—while an improvement upon his blanket ban on all in-person worship services—raises First Amendment concerns; similar emergency orders in other states have received a mixed reception in the courts.