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Federal judge rejects Catholic churches’ request for exemption from coronavirus restrictions
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Federal judge rejects Catholic churches’ request for exemption from coronavirus restrictions

A US district court judge denied a motion for a preliminary injunction Friday from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn to exempt its parishes from New York state’s restrictions on religious gatherings in coronavirus hotspots.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s public health order on October 6 shut down non-essential businesses and placed restrictions on gatherings at religious institutions to as few as ten people in areas where COVID-19 infections have increased. The diocese brought the suit, arguing Cuomo’s limitations on gatherings at religious institutions violated religious freedoms protected by the First Amendment. The diocese also insisted its churches were subjected to more severe restrictions than other essential businesses. The plaintiffs contended the constraints have effectively closed down its churches and that there was no rational basis for the governor’s order. The preliminary injunction sought by the diocese would have exempted more than two dozen of its churches from the restrictions.

Attorney Seth Farber, representing the state, argued that the COVID-19 restrictions intended to target areas where infections were rising and were not meant to discriminate against religious institutions. Governor Cuomo also maintained that his measures had nothing to do with religious considerations. Rather, the measures were similar to other steps taken to stop the spread of the virus in areas that he called “red zones.”

Judge Nicholas Garaufis denied the diocese’s request for the preliminary injunction, stating the restrictions were “guided by science, not a desire [to] target religious practice.” He continued to say if he did grant the diocese’s request, “the result could be avoidable death on a massive scale like New Yorkers experienced in the Spring.”

Three Orthodox Jewish congregations also challenged the restrictions in a separate suit filed on Thursday. Governor Cuomo’s order expires on November 5.