Cuomo’s Restrictions on Synagogues in Virus Hot Spots Can Go Forward

A federal judge on Friday allowed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to move forward with new coronavirus restrictions on gatherings at synagogues and other houses of worships, finding that the rules did not violate the free exercise of religion for Orthodox Jews.

The ruling in federal court in Brooklyn came after Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization, sued Mr. Cuomo this week over his latest executive order detailing an array of new restrictions to address rising coronavirus cases in neighborhoods with large populations of Orthodox Jews.

After an emergency hearing on Friday, the judge declined to temporarily block Mr. Cuomo’s executive order ahead of three Jewish holidays over the weekend. She said she sympathized with the order’s impact on the Orthodox Jewish community, but rejected the argument that Mr. Cuomo had unconstitutionally targeted a religious minority.

“How can we ignore the compelling state interest in protecting the health and life of all New Yorkers?” said Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto of Federal District Court in Brooklyn.

When announcing the executive order, Mr. Cuomo set new capacity limits for houses of worship. In zones with the highest infection rates, houses of worship would be limited to 25 percent capacity or a maximum of 10 people, while those in a less severe hot spot could have 50 percent capacity.

Lawyers for Agudath Israel, an umbrella group with affiliated synagogues around the country, had argued that the new rules were unconstitutional because they prevented Orthodox Jews from exercising their religion. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn also filed a similar lawsuit against Mr. Cuomo on Thursday.

The judge’s decision means that Mr. Cuomo can impose the new restrictions as the lawsuit progresses.

The legal actions underscored the challenge facing New York officials as they try to fight off a second wave of virus infections and navigate a crisis at the intersection of public health, religion and politics. Some areas in New York City had infection rates of around 8 percent, officials said, far higher than the 1 percent rate for the rest of the city.

The restrictions were intended to curb worrisome outbreaks of the coronavirus in Brooklyn, Queens and New York City’s northern suburbs, including several areas with large Orthodox populations. Orthodox synagogues have in recent months become scenes of large gatherings of worshipers clustered together, many not wearing face coverings.

“This is the last thing I want to do,” Mr. Cuomo said earlier this week. “It’s a difficult conversation, and you’re right on the line of government intrusion on religion.”

Mr. Cuomo’s announcement came on the eve of three Jewish holidays this weekend — Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah.

Lawyers for the state argued that the restrictions did not unfairly target the Orthodox Jewish community, saying it was not a violation of the Constitution to acknowledge that religious gatherings have a higher risk of spreading the virus.

In neighborhoods with the highest infection rates, schools and nonessential businesses were also shut down by the executive order.

“The First Amendment’s protections do not require that the government ignore reality and common sense,” a lawyer for the state wrote in a court filing on Friday.

The lawsuits followed heightened tensions over the new lockdowns, which prompted ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn this week to protest, light masks on fire and attack at least three people, including two local men accused of disloyalty to the Hasidic community.

The governor’s order will affect hundreds of synagogues and tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews in New York, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs said that instead of targeting houses of worship, Mr. Cuomo should focus on enforcing social distancing and other Covid-19 restrictions, including at bars and restaurants.

The rabbis in the lawsuit said their synagogues had already implemented strict protocols in compliance with earlier state mandates, including splitting services into separate gatherings and requiring congregants to wear a mask.

“There is simply no justification for the unwarranted, unnecessary and unconstitutional restrictions imposed this week,” lawyers for Agudath Israel wrote.

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