NEW YORK (ChurchMilitant.com) - New York Democrat government leaders are wrongly curbing worship services while giving the nod to mass protests, a federal judge has decided.
In his June 26 decision, Senior U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe ruled: "It is not the judiciary's role to second-guess the likes of Gov. 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."
Sharpe noted that like religious services, offices, retail stores, salons and restaurants — all currently permitted to open at a 50% indoor capacity — all involve a congregation of people for a length of time.
"These secular businesses/activities threaten defendants' interest in slowing the spread of COVID-19 to a similar or greater degree than those of plaintiffs' and demonstrate that the 25% indoor capacity limitation on houses of worship is underinclusive and triggers strict scrutiny review," he observed.
Speaking also to the governor's incongruent outdoor prohibitions, the judge said, "Governor Cuomo has now specifically authorized outdoor, in-person graduation ceremonies of no more than 150 people," which is "an exemption from the 10- or 25-person outdoor limits that apply to other situations."
Yet, "There is nothing materially different about a graduation ceremony and a religious gathering such that defendants' justifications for a difference in treatment can be found compelling," he said.
Thomas More Society's (TMS') Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara celebrated the order, saying: "We are pleased that Judge Sharpe was able to see through the sham of Gov. Cuomo's 'distancing protocol' which went right out the window as soon as he and Mayor de Blasio saw a mass protest movement they favored taking to the streets by the thousands."
"This decision is an important step toward inhibiting the suddenly emerging trend of exercising absolute monarchy on pretext of public health," adding, "What this kind of regime really meant in practice is freedom for me, but not for thee," he added.
Ferrara drilled down on what he saw as an "exploitation" of the pandemic, saying the Democrat leaders used it "to create, over the past three months, a veritable dictatorship by means of a complex web of executive orders."
"The orders have imposed and selectively enforced social distancing under a lockdown of virtually every aspect of life for New York state residents on the pretext of 'public health,'" he said.
Ferrara pointed out that Cuomo and de Blasio used "personal value judgments" rather than "a science of viral contagion" to determine which activities were deemed "permissible" in their jurisdictions.
Permissible activities "have included mass demonstrations of thousands of people — gatherings of which the governor and mayor have approved and the mayor participated in," he said.
The attorney chastized Cuomo and de Blasio, along with James, for having enforced "a lockdown," both "by threat of criminal prosecution and actual prosecution." Actual prosecution includes $1,000 fines for Cuomo's recently created offense of violating distancing protocol.
"These mass protest gatherings ... have been not only allowed but praised by both the governor of New York and mayor of New York City, even though massive property damage and death have resulted," he said, adding, "This, when the government's primary purpose is to protect the people it governs."
Along the lines of Ferrara, Judge Sharpe also reprimanded the officials for the unjust favor extended to mass protestors:
Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio could have just as easily discouraged protests, short of condemning their message, in the name of public health and exercised discretion to suspend enforcement for public safety reasons instead of encouraging what they knew was a flagrant disregard of the outdoor limits and social distancing rules. They could have also been silent. But by acting as they did, Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment.
"Favored businesses ... as well as favored mass demonstrations ... are totally exempt from the challenged gathering limits, while defendants irrationally and capriciously continue to forbid religious ceremonies ... and other comparatively tiny gatherings on the now patently specious grounds that they will cause death if allowed to occur," Thomas More attorneys pointed out in the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs included two priests of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) — Steven Soos and Nicholas Stamos — and three Orthodox Jewish congregants — Elchanan Perr, Daniel Schonborn, and Mayer Mayerfeld.
The lawsuit charged the three defendants violated the plaintiffs' rights to free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and expressive association under the First Amendment as well as violating due process protected by the 14th Amendment.
It further accused Gov. Andrew Cuomo of acting against New York state law and the New York state Constitution.
TMS Public Relations representative Thomas Ciesielka told Church Militant that the ruling appears to represent "an across the board affirmation" despite language in the order specifically referring to plaintiffs.
Despite the huge win for religious liberty in general and Catholics in particular, the New York State Catholic Conference is exercising caution. Spokesman for the conference Dennis Poust said he anticipated that "our churches will continue to voluntarily follow state guidelines as a matter of prudential judgment" even though, per Sharpe's order, they are not bound by law to do so.
The Thomas More Society is a national nonprofit law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family and religious liberty.