New York drops push for limits on religious gatherings
Religious Liberty | Houses of worship finally slough off draconian pandemic regulations
by Steve West
Posted 2/15/21, 03:20 pm
An embattled Gov. Andrew Cuomo has completely backed off efforts to impose tight capacity restrictions on houses of worship. The move ends some of the tightest pandemic-related worship limits in the country.
U.S. District Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto permanently blocked enforcement of the executive order that put houses of worship in zones that limited them to 25 percent capacity with a maximum of 10 people or 33 percent capacity with a maximum of 25 people. Matsumoto made clear that his ruling in favor of the Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America would apply to all places of worship in the state. Cuomo told the court he didn’t object to the ruling.
The governor’s retreat followed a series of setbacks. In a Thanksgiving Eve ruling last year, the Supreme Court set aside his 10- and 25-person caps on worship after finding they treated places of worship differently than similar secular businesses, chiding that “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
After the case returned to the district court, Cuomo faced the prospect of testimony from health officials that may not have supported his policies. A Feb. 1 New York Times article reported at least nine senior health officials left, resigned, or retired from the state’s Health Department in recent months, and the governor burned some bridges after publicly stating he did not trust the experts.
Some officials are still trying to restrict churches. Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County reimposed an indoor worship ban on Thursday, arguing that its policy is constitutional because it also prohibits secular gatherings. Maine Gov. Janet Mills’ 50-person cap on worship—now the most restrictive in the nation outside of Santa Clara County, Calif.—is headed to the Supreme Court.
But the legal tides have mostly turned against these draconian measures. The justices on Feb. 5 struck down California’s longstanding bar on indoor worship.
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Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.