U.S. judge denies request to exempt Catholic churches from New York coronavirus limits

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A federal judge on Friday 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.

A young Ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy puts on a mask, during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, New York, U.S., October 9, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Brooklyn U.S. 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% 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% 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 U.S. 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% earlier this month, but has since trended lower, falling to less 5% on Wednesday. Positivity rates in the rest of the state have been around 1%.

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

Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Leslie Adler and David Gregorio

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