Federal Judge Says New York Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio Wrong To Limit Religious Gatherings


Loss of plaintiffs’ free exercise rights is alone adequate to demonstrate irreparable injury…

In a case seeking injunctive relief to restrain the state of New York from enforcing any gathering limits on outdoor religious gatherings or imposition of any limitation on indoor gatherings for religious purposes Speficially, the plaintiffs Reverends Steven Soros and Nicholas Stamos, et al are seeking to limit Cuomo, NYC Mayor de Blasio and New York’s attorney general, Letitia James from imposing limits on religious gatherings while allowing favored “essential businesses,” day camps and special education classes to have 100% occupancy.

Judge Gary Sharpe granted their request for injunctive relief.

Admitted into the court documents were a number of public comments that Governor Cuomo has made:

During a press conference held on June 4, 2020, when asked about his reopening plans, and if there was a way to “allow high school graduation ceremonies with social distancing,” Governor Cuomo remarked: “Did you hear anything that we’ve been talking about for the past 96 days? . . . [Y]eah I know everybody wants to go to a high school graduation, I get it. Not if they’re going to die.” (Id. at 150-52.) When asked how he is able to justify opening a patio for outside dining, but will not allow high school graduation ceremonies with social distancing, Governor Cuomo answered: “What difference does it make? . . . The issue is a public health issue and you don’t want people sick and dead. . . . It’s about death, it’s about balancing the risk versus the reward, balancing the desires and wants versus the consequences.”

United States District Court, Northern District of New York, Rev. Steven Soon et al, vs Andres Cuomo, et al

During this same press briefing, Governor Cuomo also stated, “I want to thank the protestors. . . . I stand with the protestors on the point that we need meaningful reform.” 

United States District Court, Northern District of New York, Rev. Steven Soon et al, vs Andres Cuomo, et al

Another section of the court documents notes that “mass race-related protests have erupted across the nation, including in the State of New York….protesters, sometimes in groups of thousands, have taken to the streets of New York City as well as other major cities…”

Attorney for the plaintiffs also noted that during this time, a “social media campaign has encouraged theaters in New York, which are to be closed until Phase Four of New York’s reopening plan, to open their lobbies and restrooms for protestors.”

During a 1 June press conference, when asked about the protests and whether he would “suggest people not go out and protest,” Cuomo answered:

No, I think you can protest, but do it smartly and intelligently. . . . There were protests all across the country. Protest. Just be smart about it. With this virus, you can do many things now as long as you’re smart about it, right? You can reopen, you can go into a store and you can do a lot of things, just be smart.

United States District Court, Northern District of New York, Rev. Steven Soon et al, vs Andres Cuomo, et al

There are many examples of inconsistencies cited in the court documents which show that Cuomo, de Blasio and New York’s Attorney General were placing requirements on religious institutions that were more severe than than businesses and other institutions.

Specifically, the court documents note that on June 4th, Mayor de Blasio, without a mask, attended and addressed a political gathering, held in memory of George Floyd.” “Neither the ten-person limit on outdoor gatherings, nor the social distancing protocols, were adhered to.”

The court notes that plaintiffs Soos and Stamos are Catholic priests who “have been forbidden from offering Mass and the other Sacraments beyond an ever-changing maximum number of people. Because of the limitations proscribed in the executive orders, Soros and Stamos are forced to either turn away parishioners who wish to attend Mass – a weekly obligation that Catholics face ‘under pain of mortal sin’ – or to hold more Masses per day than are possible.” The document then lists how Catholic practices make outdoor services nearly impossible for plaintiffs to conduct Catholic Mass and Sacraments.

The court filings also document the Jewish congregants who are also plaintiffs in this case and how New York and New York City’s policies on COVID-19 prevention have prohibited them from attending services and infringed on their practice of their religion. One congregant Schonbrun of Chabad of Marine Park in Brooklyn told of one occasion when the congregation was holding a prayer service outside when a police officer arrived and informed them that they were conducing an ‘illegal gathering,’ despite the fact that only eight congregants were present, and they ‘were at least 20 feet apart from each to her.” When they refused to disperse, “the police officer threatened them with fines and arrest” and called for additional police to arrive at the scene until they were sure all of the Chabad congregants had dispersed.

The judge ruled in this case that “the broad limits of that executive latitude have been exceeded.” Further, the judge noted that while “it is not the judiciary’s role to second guess the likes of Governor Cuomo or Mayor de Blasio when it comes to decisions they make in such troubling times, that is, until those decisions result in the curtailment of fundamental rights without compelling justification.”

Judge Sharpe, in those comments regarding the curtailment of fundamental rights, was addressing the 1st Amendment right of free speech and practice of religion. Sharpe noted that the Supreme Court had just “weighed in on a California-based limitation for religious gatherings of ‘25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees,” in S. Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom 2020). Sharpe states that Chief Justice Roberts had concurred in a decision to deny injunctive relief explaining “Our Constitution principally entrusts “[t]he safety and the health of the people” to the politically accountable officials of the States “to guard and protect.”  (Jacobson v Massachusetts 1905)

Judge Sharpe argues that Justice Roberts had recognized in his decision, however, that there are “broad limits” which may not be eclipsed.” Sharpe states that the Newsom case decision did not address whether those broad limits had been exceeded. Since the Newsom case decision did not address this issue, Sharpe states that he turns to the Free Exercise Clause jurisprudence for application of a standard of review. This is the part of the ruling where Sharpe states that while it’s not his role to judge executive decision responses to a pandemic, it is when “those decisions result in the curtailment of fundamental rights without compelling justification.”

Sharpe notes that in the “absence of granting an injunction, plaintiffs’ religious activities will be burdened and continue to be treated less favorably than comparable secular activities.”