A federal judge on Friday issued an injunction blocking New York from enforcing restrictions on outdoor religious gatherings, and from limiting indoor religious gatherings any further than any other industry that is part of Phase 2 of the state's reopening plan.
The ruling is a major win for religious organizations that argued they were being treated unfairly by the state's response to the coronavirus -- and a win for officials in Washington who suggested the state was being easier on protesters than priests.
Judge Gary Sharpe, in a 38-page ruling from Albany, enjoined Gov. Andrew Cuomo, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Attorney General Letitia James from enforcing some of the capacity and other rules put in place by executive order in the wake of COVID-19.
"Indeed, in the absence of an injunction, plaintiffs’ religious activities will be burdened and continue to be treated less favorably than comparable secular activities. An injunction, on the other hand, does not undercut defendants’ interest in controlling the spread of COVID-19, provided that plaintiffs abide by social distancing guidance," Sharpe wrote.
On Monday, the Justice Department issued a statement saying De Blasio in particular had "demonstrated a troubling preference for certain First Amendment rights over others," citing the city's limits on the size of religious gatherings but not on the size of protests.
(It was a purported refusal to sign onto that letter that allegedly lead to the ouster of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman last weekend.)
The plaintiffs in the case included two Catholic priests from upstate New York, who argued that the restrictions on gatherings kept people from Mass and from receiving Communion; and three Orthodox Jewish congregants from Brooklyn, who alleged that they had been prohibited from worshiping.
Sharpe's order says the state can not restrict indoor religious gatherings in any way more strict than the gathering rules for Phase 2 of the state's reopening, which includes offices and retail spaces. It also prohibits any restriction on outdoor gatherings -- though in both cases, celebrants and observants still have to comply with social distancing guidelines.