Governor Issues Religious Gathering ‘Guidelines’

At a June 6, 2020 news briefing, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that public health restrictions on worship services would be relaxed due to progress made in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. The Governor stated that in regions that have reached Phase Two of the New York Forward re-opening plan, worship services may re-open immediately at 25% capacity so long as Department of Health protocols for social distancing, cleaning and disinfection are followed. Churches located in regions that are in Phase One or in regions that have not yet begun to re-open remain subject to a 10-person limit for in-person services. The Governor’s announcement was followed by the release of Executive Order No. 202.38.

On March 23, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Cuomo banned all “non-essential” gatherings of persons. On May 19, 2020, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms called upon Gov. Cuomo to: (a) allow churches in areas not substantially affected by the pandemic to re-open immediately; and (b) allow churches in other areas of the state to re-open during Phase Two of New York Forward. On May 21, 2020, the Governor issued Executive Order No. 202.32, which allowed in-person religious gatherings of up to 10 people to resume. Prior to Gov. Cuomo’s June 6 announcement, the 10-person limit on religious gatherings was scheduled to remain in effect until June 28, 2020 and church services were not slated to re-commence until Phase Four.

Rev. Jason J. McGuire, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms (NYCF), made the following remarks: “The Governor’s announcement is not everything, but it’s forward movement. Evangelicals want Gov. Cuomo to be a partner in public safety who respects the First Amendment and religious freedom. We know that pastors and churches can be trusted to take appropriate safety precautions. While we would prefer a more rapid rollback of the state’s temporary limits on religious gatherings, our organization appreciates that this positive step toward our churches has been taken.”

In connection with his New York Forward plan, Gov. Cuomo has issued so-called guidelines for various types of businesses and other organizations to use in resuming in-person activities. (We describe these documents as “so-called guidelines” because they contain requirements; if they truly were guidelines, they would not contain requirements.) One such set of so-called guidelines applies to religious services and funerals. This document includes 31 separate requirements and another 18 “recommended best practices” for churches to follow in resuming in-person services. The Governor has also provided a template for churches to use in creating safety plans. Churches are not required to follow the Governor’s template when they create their safety plans; in addition, they are not required to submit such plans to the state, but are merely required to make them available for inspection upon request by a public health entity. Furthermore, the Governor has asked that churches and other businesses submit online forms affirming their compliance with the New York Forward re-opening guidelines.

Gov. Cuomo’s so-called guidelines for religious organizations go beyond what is needed to protect public health, and many churches may find it burdensome to adhere to all 31 of them. New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms calls upon Gov. Cuomo to soften the so-called guidelines. Churches should be empowered to create safe re-opening plans that respect religious liberty and fit the unique needs of their congregations without being hamstrung by red tape.