US judge denies request to exempt Catholic churches from New York COVID-19 limits

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NEW YORK: A federal judge on Friday (Oct 16) rejected a request from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn to void New York state’s limits on religious gatherings in coronavirus hot spots, which the diocese argued had effectively closed its churches.

Brooklyn US District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis declined to issue a preliminary injunction sought by the diocese that would have exempted more than two dozen of its parishes from the state’s temporary stringent restrictions.

Garaufis said he was satisfied the restrictions were “guided by science, not a desire target religious practice”.

“In fact, if the court issues an injunction and the State is correct about the acuteness of the threat currently posed by hotspot neighborhoods, the result could be avoidable death on a massive scale like New Yorkers experienced in the Spring,” the judge wrote in a 24-page order.

An Oct 6 order by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down non-essential businesses in targeted “red zone” areas where infections have spiked, including some Brooklyn neighborhoods. It also limited gatherings at religious institutions to the lesser of 10 people or 25 per cent of capacity.

Cuomo’s order, which expires on Nov 5, also limited religious gatherings in “orange zone” areas that surround the “red zones” to the lesser of 25 people or 33 per cent of capacity.

Attorneys for the diocese, who said most of its churches hold 500 to 1,000 parishioners, challenged only the flat-number limits, not the percentages.

They argued that the limits violated religious freedoms protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, and that their churches were singled out for more stringent restrictions than essential businesses, such as food stores.

Cuomo insisted the measures were not intended to single out religious groups and were consistent with other steps he has taken to combat geographic “clusters” of infections.

The percentage of people testing positive for the virus in the clusters jumped to nearly 8 per cent earlier this month, but has since trended lower, falling to less 5 per cent on Wednesday. Positivity rates in the rest of the state have been around 1 per cent.

Separately, three Orthodox Jewish congregations also challenged the state restrictions in a suit filed on Thursday in US District Court in Manhattan.

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