A federal judge said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio “exceeded” their executive limits by restricting religious worship services during the state’s coronavirus shutdown.
U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe issued a preliminary injunction Friday on behalf of two priests — Steven Soos and Nicholas Stamos — and three Orthodox Jewish congregants from Brooklyn — Elchanan Perr, Daniel Schonborn, and Mayer Mayerfeld, represented by the Thomas More Society.
They filed the suit in the Northern District of New York after mass protests, riots and looting occurred in the New York after Memorial Day weekend.
De Blasio communicated “simultaneous pro-protest/anti-religious gathering messages” when he “actively encouraged participation in protests and openly discouraged religious gatherings and threatened religious worshipers,” Sharpe said in his ruling.
“Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio could have just as easily discouraged protests, short of condemning their message, in the name of public health and exercised discretion to suspend enforcement for public safety reasons instead of encouraging what they knew was a flagrant disregard of the outdoor limits and social distancing rules,” the judge said. “They could have also been silent. But by acting as they did, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment.”
Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara said Cuomo’s executive orders were a “sham” that “went right out the window as soon as he and Mayor de Blasio saw a mass protest movement they favored taking to the streets by the thousands.”
“Suddenly, the limit on ‘mass gatherings’ was no longer necessary to ‘save lives,’” Ferrara told Fox News. “Yet they were continuing to ban high school graduations and other outdoor gatherings exceeding a mere 25 people. This decision is an important step toward inhibiting the suddenly emerging trend of exercising absolute monarchy on [the] pretext of public health. What this kind of regime really meant in practice is freedom for me, but not for thee.”
The U.S. Justice Department called the ruling a “win for religious freedom and the civil liberties of New Yorkers.”
“Government cannot discriminate by protecting free speech and the right to assemble while threatening or limiting religious exercise – it must protect all rights guaranteed under the First Amendment,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said.
“The court’s decision is consistent with positions and arguments made by the United States Department of Justice in similar filings and letters, including in New York City and elsewhere around the country. The Department of Justice will continue to support people of faith who seek equal treatment against threats and actions by public officials who discriminate against them because of their religion. The Constitution and our oath to defend and protect it require nothing less.”
Now, Cuomo, James, and de Blasio are “enjoined and restrained from enforcing any indoor gathering limitations” against the involved houses of worship “greater than imposed for Phase 2 industries,” according to the judge’s ruling.
The judge also prohibited all three Democratic Party leaders from “enforcing any limitation for outdoor gatherings provided that participants in such gatherings follow social distancing requirements as set forth in the applicable executive orders and guidance.”
Among the many constitutional violations cited in the lawsuit, the Thomas More Society argues that de Blasio didn’t even follow his own orders regarding social distancing when engaging in mass gatherings. He also did not impose a 10-person limit and did not wear a face mask on June 4, when he spoke at a mass political gathering on at Cadman Plaza. Days later, in Williamsburg, Hasidic Jewish children were forcibly removed by police for not following a 10-person limit on “non-essential gatherings” at a public park.
In April, de Blasio publicly targeted and threatened the Jewish community on Twitter, for which he was later forced to apologize.