A federal appeals circuit court ruled against a New York mandate that imposed capacity limits on churches and other houses of worship during the Coronavirus pandemic.
The three-judge panel issued the ruling on Monday after the Roman Catholic Diocese and the Orthodox Jewish Group, the Agudath Israel of America, filed a lawsuit asking for the court to block the mandate, according to The Daily Wire. The restrictions, if granted, would have limited religious gatherings to 10 people in “red zones” and 25 people in “orange zones,” or at 25 and 33 percent capacity limits respectively. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo initially placed the restrictions in an effort to “slow the spread” of the coronavirus.
Cuomo introduced the mandate in Early October, going as far as to threaten the close down religious institutions if they did not recognize the rules. “If you do not agree to enforce the rules, then we’ll close the institutions down,” Cuomo said at the time, adding that he was prepared to do that.
In the ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an order from the District Court of New York that had previously denied the Church and the Group’s efforts for a preliminary injunction on the order. The appellants had previously gone to the Supreme Court to seek injunctive relief, which was granted. “The Supreme Court found that Appellants were likely to succeed on the merits,” the court wrote, since the restrictions were greater than other “essential activities.”
“We hold that the order’s regulation of ‘houses of worship’ is subject to strict scrutiny and that its fixed capacity limits are not narrowly tailored to stem the spread of COVID-19.” The court ruled. “Appellants have established irreparable harm caused by the fixed capacity limits, and the public interest favors granting injunctive relief.”
“This order fails the basic standard by explicitly imposing on ‘houses of worship’ restrictions inapplicable to secular activities.” The ruling said, citing the Diocese’s argument. “The fixed capacity limits thus ‘cannot be viewed as neutral because they single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment….The governor has selected some business…for favorable treatment, calling them ‘essential,’ while imposing greater restrictions on ‘non-essential’ activities and religious worship.”
The court also said that, while the judges were “not public health experts,” the government had failed to “demonstrate that its policies are narrowly tailored.” The appeals court also ruled against an argument made by the lower court that the houses of worship could still practice their religion with “modifications,” saying that the restrictions would still cause irreparable harm to religious groups and the institutions.
“The restrictions challenged here specifically and disproportionately burden religious exercise, and thus ‘strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.” The court concluded.
The ruling, seen as a major win for New York houses of worship, follows a string of victories for religious institutions suing against similar restrictions in other states. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court declared restrictions in Colorado and New Jersey unconstitutional, with some of the arguments in that case appearing in the ruling against New York.