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Cuomo’s restrictions on synagogues in virus hotspots can go forward



A federal judge on Friday allowed Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to introduce new restrictions on gatherings in synagogues and other places of worship, ruling that the rules did not violate the free practice of religion for Orthodox Jews.

The ruling in federal court in Brooklyn came after Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization, this week sued Mr Cuomo over his recent order imposing a series of new restrictions on handling rising coronavirus cases in neighborhoods with a large Number of Orthodox Jews are listed.

After an emergency hearing on Friday, the judge declined to temporarily block Mr. Cuomo’s order before three Jewish holidays over the weekend. She said she sympathized with the order’s impact on the Orthodox Jewish community, but rejected the argument that Mr. Cuomo was unconstitutionally targeting a religious minority.

“How can we ignore the overriding government interest in protecting the health and life of all New Yorkers?” said Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto of the Brooklyn Federal District Court.

When the implementing regulation was announced, Mr. Cuomo set new capacity limits for places of worship. In areas with the highest infection rate, places of worship would be limited to 25 percent, or a maximum of 10 people, while those in a less severe hot spot could have 50 percent capacity.

Judge Matsumoto noted that the order also closed non-essential businesses and schools in the hardest hit areas, noting that the new rules were not motivated by intent to discriminate against Orthodox Jews. The religious burdens caused by the restrictions were outweighed by the need to halt “the most significant health crisis in living memory,” she said.

Lawyers from Agudath Israel, an umbrella organization with affiliated synagogues across the country, had argued that the new rules were unconstitutional. Orthodox Jews are disproportionately affected because they are not allowed to drive during religious holidays and they cannot travel to synagogues in areas with fewer restrictions.

In a tweet following the verdict, Agudath Israel called the decision a “crushing disappointment” and reminded followers to abide by health guidelines.

The judge’s decision means Mr. Cuomo can impose the new restrictions that came into effect on Friday in the course of the lawsuit. Anyone who violates the mass gathering order could face a daily fine of $ 15,000.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn also filed a similar lawsuit against Mr Cuomo, arguing that the restrictions would force at least two dozen churches in Brooklyn and Queens to close. After a separate hearing on Friday, another judge said he would decide at a later date whether to block the executive’s order.

The legal action underscored the challenge New York officials faced as they tried to stave off a second wave of viral infections and tackle a crisis at the intersection of public health, religion and politics. Some areas in New York City had infection rates of around 8 percent, well above the 1 percent rate for the rest of the city.

The restrictions were intended to contain worrying coronavirus outbreaks in the northern suburbs of Brooklyn, Queens and New York City, including several areas with large Orthodox populations. Orthodox synagogues have become the sites of large gatherings of believers in recent months, many of whom do not wear face coverings.

“This is the last thing I want to do,” said Mr Cuomo earlier this week. “It is a difficult conversation and you are close to government interference with religion.”

Mr. Cuomo’s announcement came on the eve of three Jewish holidays this weekend – Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah.

State lawyers argued that the restrictions did not unfairly affect the Orthodox Jewish community, saying it was not a violation of the constitution to recognize that religious gatherings are at greater risk for the virus to spread.

“Protecting the First Amendment does not require the government to ignore reality and common sense,” a state attorney wrote in a trial on Friday.

The lawsuits followed heightened tensions over the new lockdowns, which this week led ultra-Orthodox Jews to protest in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, setting masks on fire and assaulting at least three people, including two local men, accused of infidelity to the Hasidic community.

A leader of the protests, Heshy Tischler, said Friday that he would be arrested on Monday for inciting a riot. The incident involved a reporter from Jewish Insider Jacob Kornbluh, who said he was attacked and hit in the head by a crowd during a protest this week.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the footage of the attack was “gross to look at” and added that an arrest was expected. The New York Police Department declined to confirm Mr. Carpenter’s testimony, saying the matter was part of an active investigation.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Onion, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said in an interview on Friday that he was unhappy with the violent protests in Borough Park, but thought the protesters did not represent most of the members of the ultra-Orthodox community.

Judge Matsumoto’s decision was made about two hours before a series of religious holidays began during which Orthodox Jews would not use technology, which meant leaders did not have enough time to think about next steps, Rabbi Onion said.

The governor’s new restrictions will affect hundreds of synagogues and tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews in New York, according to the lawsuit. Plaintiffs said instead of focusing on places of worship, Mr Cuomo should have focused on enforcing social distancing and other Covid-19 restrictions, including in bars and restaurants.

The rabbis in the lawsuit said their synagogues had already implemented strict protocols in line with previous state mandates, including dividing services into separate assemblies and requiring parishioners to wear a mask.

“There is simply no justification for the unjustified, unnecessary and unconstitutional restrictions imposed this week,” wrote lawyers from Agudath Israel.

At one point during Friday’s hearing, which was conducted by telephone, more than 700 people had dialed. Some of them didn’t mute their phones and turned the hearing into a chaotic two hours as the arguments were interrupted by occasional shouting, music. Burps and shouts of “Trump 2020”.

The Orthodox Jewish community was devastated by the coronavirus in the spring when local leaders and ultra-Orthodox news organizations said hundreds of people may have died, including beloved religious leaders.

But since then, many in the community have failed to wear masks and adhere to other public health guidelines because local leaders describe this as a mixture of denial, misinformation and wishful thinking about herd immunity.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders have struggled for the past few weeks to prevent a shutdown, urging their followers to engage in masks and social distancing. Many said they were stunned and outraged by the governor’s proposed restrictions on religious gatherings.

Joseph Goldstein and Benjamin Weiser contributed to the reporting.


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