The Diocese of Brooklyn is suing the state of New York over a new order that restricts some indoor Masses in New York City to just 10 people.
The diocese alleges that the new health restrictions by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, put in place in Queens and Brooklyn amid a new spike in the coronavirus, “arbitrarily reduce capacity” at churches which worked with public health officials earlier in the summer to reopen safely after the initial wave of the virus.
“If this latest executive order stands, parishioners won’t be able to go to Mass this Sunday, even though the Diocese has done everything right to ensure safe conditions in its churches,” said the diocese’s attorney Randy Mastro.
“Thus, this religious community will be denied its most fundamental right — the free exercise of religion — for no legitimate reason whatsoever.”
Earlier this week, Cuomo capped indoor religious services in Brooklyn and Queens at 10 people in the areas deemed most seriously affected by the virus, and at 25 people in some other areas.
The Brooklyn diocese joined all other U.S. Catholic dioceses in halting public Masses in March to help slow the spread of the virus. The churches were closed for 16 weeks until July 5 when they were allowed by the state and city to reopen with precautions.
Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said that churches in the diocese faithfully abided by new precautions including that Mass attendees wear masks and sit at least six feet apart.
“The executive orders this week have left us with no other option than to go to court,” DiMarzio stated on Thursday. The bishop called it “an insult” for the state “to once again penalize all those who have made the safe return to Church work.”
Churches in the diocese, he said, “have the capacity to accommodate many worshippers.”
On Tuesday, Cuomo announced action to target virus “hot spots” in various counties around the state, including Brooklyn and Queens. He declared certain areas “red,” “orange,” or “yellow” zones depending on the density of virus cases or their proximity to a cluster.
Mass gatherings in violation of the order could result in sponsors being fined $15,000.
Cuomo on Monday threatened to close religious institutions if they did not agree to and enforce public health rules proposed by the city, once the rules were enacted.
“If you do not agree to enforce the rules, then we’ll close the institutions down. I am prepared to do that,” he said.
“We know religious institutions have been a problem. We know mass gatherings are the super-spreader events. We know there have been mass gatherings going on in concert with religious institutions in these communities for weeks. For weeks,” the governor said. “You don’t see masks, and you see clear violation of social distancing.”
It is unclear if any of the events Cuomo referred to involved Catholic churches.
The lawsuit against the state of New York notes that Cuomo openly admitted at his press conference announcing the new restrictions that they “are most impactful on houses of worship.”
“But it is well-settled that ‘official action that targets religious conduct for distinctive treatment’ is subject to the most ‘rigorous of scrutiny’,” the lawsuit says.
“The Governor’s action here cannot come close to satisfying this strict scrutiny, especially as-applied to the Diocese, which has at all times gone above and beyond in implementing health and safety precautions in response to the pandemic, and has seen no spike or outbreak of COVID-19 relating to church attendance.”