Roman Catholic and Orthodox Jewish groups filed two federal lawsuits Thursday challenging the restrictions Gov. Andrew Cuomo (R-N.Y.) established for COVID-19 hot spots this week.
Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group for the strictly observant Haredi branch of Orthodox Judaism, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn are seeking an injunction to block Cuomo from enforcing an executive order issued Tuesday that sets new capacity limits on houses of worship in parts of New York City and its northern suburbs.
Cuomo’s order, set to go into effect by Friday, violates the religious freedom of thousands of Orthodox Jews who live in many of the impacted neighborhoods, Agudath Israel of America said in a statement. Compared to other religious groups, Orthodox Jews are “disproportionally” affected since religious laws prevent them from driving to synagogues outside of hot spots to attend services, the group stated.
The order was issued just as Orthodox Jewish residents were preparing to celebrate important religious holidays.
Agudath’s leaders agreed that social distancing, masks and other health precautions should be observed, but said it was possible to safely hold gatherings in larger synagogues, the statement read.
Shlomo Werdiger, the chairman of Agudath Israel of America’s board of trustees, said the lawsuit was a “last resort.” He accused Cuomo’s administration of failing to work closely with community leaders before issuing the order.
“Unfortunately, the Governor’s new executive order makes it impossible for us to practice our religion, and we really had no choice but to seek relief in the courts,” Werdiger said.
The Diocese of Brooklyn, which spans both Brooklyn and Queens, accused Cuomo of a “broad-brush response.” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said Catholic churches in his diocese had not experienced an uptick in cases and were following social distancing guidelines.
“The state has completely disregarded the fact that our safety protocols have worked and it is an insult to once again penalize all those who have made the safe return to church work,” DiMarzio told his diocesan newspaper, The Tablet.
Cuomo has defended the new rules as a temporary measure meant to get the state’s infection rate under control. In 20 zip codes flagged as high priorities, the COVID-19 positivity rate was 5.5% on Tuesday, compared to the 1.2% positivity rate documented in the rest of New York, per The New York Times.
“We’ve been sued virtually every day for every action taken,” Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor, told HuffPost in response to the lawsuits. “We’re concentrating on reducing the virus in these hot spots and saving lives, period.”
The order targets areas in New York City’s Brooklyn and Queens boroughs as well as sections of Orange and Rockland counties and the city of Binghamton. It creates three color-coded restriction levels: red, orange and yellow. Houses of worship in red zones are limited to 25% capacity or a maximum of 10 people, whichever is fewer. Public and private schools as well as non-essential businesses in the red zones shuttered on Thursday, The Associated Press reported.
For members of Brooklyn’s tight-knit Haredi Orthodox Jewish community, the lawsuit was the culmination of days of tensions with both Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Leaders in the community said they were being unfairly and unconstitutionally targeted by the restrictions. Some said they were being subjected to a double standard and that the city was much more accommodating of Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
Many members also mistakenly believe that after experiencing a deadly surge in cases this spring, they had achieved herd immunity to the virus, local leaders said. Misinformation about the virus and about testing has reportedly spread through the community via the messaging platform WhatsApp.
Some community leaders also claimed the government’s outreach efforts hadn’t been culturally sensitive ― or even issued in the correct language. As recently as mid-September, there were no Yiddish speakers working as contact tracers for the city, according to The New York Times.
Along with contending with the coronavirus, New York’s Orthodox Jewish communities have been dealing with an increase in anti-Semitic physical assaults over the past year, some of which have been deadly.
According to AP, Agudath Israel of America teamed up with a Brooklyn Jewish community council last week to distribute 400,000 masks. On Thursday, the organization’s leaders urged members living in high infection areas to get tested, socially distance, wear masks and avoid large gatherings.
“We are obligated ... to do everything possible to avoid even one occurrence of serious illness,” the Agudath leaders wrote.
Still, factions of Brooklyn’s Haredi community have been flouting the guidelines, reportedlytaking their cues from President Donald Trump. Protests against the restrictions erupted in Brooklyn’s Borough Park this week, with hundreds of men gathering close together in the streets without wearing masks. Social media videos of a Wednesday evening protest showed the crowd turning on an Orthodox Jewish journalist. He claimed he was called a Nazi, kicked and spat upon before being chased away.
Simcha Eichenstein, a New York State assemblyman who represents Borough Park, said Thursday that the protests didn’t reflect the values of his community.
“I am begging and I am imploring the handful of people within the community to end the violence,” Eichenstein wrote in a statement.
Eichenstein also pledged that the community’s synagogues will remain open.
“Let’s continue to use our voices in demanding what no one can take away from us — our ability to gather in prayer,” he said. “That is fundamental to us as a people and we will never compromise on that. But we must do this peacefully because that’s what makes us who we are.”
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