Jewish, Catholic Groups Sue NY State Amid Crackdown on Religious Gatherings, Schools

Three Rockland County Jewish congregations are suing the state and Gov. Cuomo, saying he engaged in a "streak of anti-Semitic discrimination," while NYC churches alleged in a separate suit that they are being unfairly punished

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Three Rockland County Jewish congregations are suing New York state and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, saying he engaged in a “streak of anti-Semitic discrimination” with a recent crackdown on religious gatherings to reduce the state’s coronavirus infection rate.

The Manhattan federal court lawsuit filed late Wednesday accused the Democrat of making negative, false, and discriminatory statements about the Jewish Orthodox community as he imposed new coronavirus measures to counter the state’s rising infection rate in so-called “red zone” areas.

Cuomo’s statements and actions were painful for residents in an area north of New York City where a man invaded a Hanukkah celebration in December and stabbed or slashed five people, the lawsuit said. Grafton Thomas awaits trial after pleading not guilty.

Andrew Siff and Myles Miller report on COVID hot zones "cooling" in New York City, as Jewish leaders take legal action against the state after shut downs of religious gatherings.

The attack occurred in Monsey — near the New Jersey state line about 35 miles north of New York City — where two congregations in the new lawsuit are based.

The state said six coronavirus clusters in areas comprising 2.8 percent of the state’s population have appeared in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as Broome, Orange and Rockland counties, necessitating the closing of schools and nonessential businesses and limits on gatherings.

The new measures announced Oct. 6 have resulted in temporarily limiting the size of religious gatherings in the COVID-19 hot spots to 25 percent capacity, or a maximum of 10 people.

The limits prompted several federal lawsuits, including two in Brooklyn and one in Albany.

The latest lawsuit said Cuomo’s order was “blatantly anti-Semitic, creating religious-observance based color coded ‘hot-spot’ zones directed towards particular Jewish communities.”

The lawsuit said his action “not only flagrantly flies directly in the face of scientific evidence” and a court order limiting what measures the state can take. It also “specifically singles out the Orthodox Jewish community in what has proven to be the latest extension of Governor Cuomo’s streak of anti-Semitic discrimination,” the lawsuit added.

Cuomo, who has said he has “respect and love” for the Orthodox community, told reporters Thursday that he was not targeting Orthodox Jewish communities. He said red zones are based on addresses of residences where more individuals are testing positive for COVID-19.

He blamed a lack of local government enforcement for some in the Orthodox Jewish community failing to follow COVID-19 gathering restrictions since the spring. He noted houses of worship can at least open in red zones, where non-essential businesses cannot.

NBC New York's Tracie Strahan reports.

“The majority of Ultra Orthodox groups I’ve spoken with have been cooperative,” he said. “There’s a relatively small number that’s uncooperative, and just believe they should be exempt from these government operations.”

Cuomo also said it seems the spread of new infections in clusters where he imposed restrictions has leveled off somewhat, though it remains higher than in the rest of the state. And the number of New Yorkers hospitalized with the virus has dipped slightly, to 897 patients on Wednesday.

The lawsuit comes nearly a week after an Albany federal judge cited the state’s interest in protecting public safety in ruling in the governor’s favor in a lawsuit by rabbis and synagogues that argued the restrictions were unconstitutional.

In that lawsuit, brought by rabbis, leaders of synagogues and the national Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel, lawyers for Cuomo argued in court papers that “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community … to communicable disease.”

Those sentiments were echoed Thursday when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the governor’s moves hours before a hearing in a lawsuit in which the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn fought restrictions.

He said the state was trying to stop a “full-blown second wave” like those occurring worldwide.

“We cannot let that happen here. So if for a few weeks, we’re asking people to do something exceptional to help stop a problem from growing and stop it from spreading, I think that’s fair. And I think the court will understand,” he said.

In that lawsuit filed by the Brooklyn diocese, the churches argue that they never violated the governor's executive orders, but are now being punished for others' actions. The lawsuit was expedited after Cuomo threatened to withhold funds from establishments that violate lockdown orders.

"It has nothing to do with what the religion is or what the party is. It's purely a function of where the cases are," Cuomo said.

At the hearing for the lawsuit Thursday afternoon, the attorney for the churches said there has been no evidence of COVID cases spreading in Catholic Churches, nor was there evidence of spread from known cluster cases in Orthodox communities to the Catholic churches.

No decision came from the judge, but he did ask the governor's representative to provide a written statement to him by 10 a.m. Friday tp provide any updates regarding the timing of the restrictions on red zones.

The legal action comes as 28 Catholic churches in Brooklyn and Queens are subject to the new restrictions, including limiting the number of parishioners inside. Churches said that the measures are unfair, given that adjustments like sanitizing stations, socially distanced seating and changes to holy communion have already been made.

"Our churches seat between 500-1,000 individuals. What's the rationale for coming up with this numner 10?" asked Monsignor Kieran Harrington. He argues that the governor's restrictions are a first amendment violation — and instead of the government imposing new rules, the old ones simply need to be enforced.

"That is the responsibility of civil officials. If there is a law for mask-wearing, the government should enforce the law. What the government should not do is abridge my first amendment rights because others are not following the law," Harrington said.

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