Religious groups sue to stop Cuomo’s new lockdowns

Different lawsuits claim restrictions on houses of worship are unconstitutional

Gov. Andrew Cuomo with the Cathedral Basilica of St. James and Agudath Israel of Madison in Brooklyn (Getty, Wikimedia, Google Maps)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo with the Cathedral Basilica of St. James and Agudath Israel of Madison in Brooklyn (Getty, Wikimedia, Google Maps)

Orthodox Jewish advocacy organization Agudath Israel of America and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn have filed separate lawsuits in federal court against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, challenging the state’s restrictions on religious gatherings in neighborhoods where Covid-19 cases are surging.

Both organizations are challenging Cuomo’s recent order restricting gatherings in houses of worship on the grounds that it violates the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause, forbidding laws that inhibit the free exercise of religion.

In its complaint, Agudath alleges that Cuomo targeted the Orthodox Jewish community when he said that if the “Orthodox community” does not agree to the order “the state will take action.” It adds that there are hundreds of synagogues and “many tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews residing in those communities,” placing the burden directly on them.

The lockdown affects several Brooklyn neighborhoods — including Borough Park, Midwood, Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park — and mandates that nonessential businesses and schools in “red zones” close, while restricting the number of people who can gather in houses of worship. There are also restrictions in “orange” and “yellow” zones that limit capacity for restaurants and other businesses, as well as on large gatherings.

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Religious institutions still face restrictions in orange and yellow zones, the Diocese of Brooklyn notes in its complaint, which states that the “express targeting of religious practice for unwarranted, disparate treatment” violates First Amendment rights.

The two lawsuits follow another complaint filed on Thursday by a Brooklyn-based law firm, which claimed the governor’s line-drawing forced the firm to shut down, violating its constitutional rights.

Residents and religious leaders in the Brooklyn neighborhoods targeted by the lockdown responded to the order with outrage. Fires burned through the night Wednesday and at least one Hasidic man was hospitalized after being beaten by several protesters, the New York Times reported.

Though many developers and investors have recently been outspoken in calling for offices to reopen and workers to return to their pre-Covid routines, most trade organizations have come out in support of Cuomo’s restrictions, chief among them the Real Estate Board of New York.

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