Governor’s COVID-19 Restrictions on Houses of Worship Can Continue
WINDSOR TERRACE — The second time around in federal court was no more successful than the first for the Diocese of Brooklyn.
On the evening of Oct. 16, Judge Nicholas Garaufis denied the diocese’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt restrictions imposed on houses of worship. Gov. Andrew Cuomo had placed, via executive order, limits on the number of people who can participate in religious services in communities with high COVID-19 positivity rates.
It was the second time in a week that a court ruling went against the diocese. A different federal judge initially sided with the governor exactly one week earlier, on Oct. 9.
“The Diocese of Brooklyn is extremely disappointed by today’s ruling, as we believe we presented a strong case in support of our right to worship,” said a statement from Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio shortly after the judge issued his ruling. “It is a shame our parishioners in the red zones cannot return to Mass when the judge acknowledged we have done everything right.”
“We are now considering our appellate options,” the statement read in regards to the diocese’s next steps.
The diocese was fighting the governor’s executive order allowing only 10 people to attend Mass in certain Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods. Cuomo announced his executive order on Oct. 6 in response to a rise in COVID-19 positivity rates in several neighborhoods.
The diocese filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn Federal Court two days later, charging that the limitations violated the First Amendment and were being unevenly applied.
Under the governor’s restrictions, three zones were created — red, orange, and yellow. In red zones, churches and other religious institutions are limited to 25 percent capacity, with no more than 10 people. In orange zones, attendance at religious services is restricted to a maximum of 33 percent capacity with no more than 25 people. In yellow zones, 50 percent capacity is permitted at services.
There are more than two dozen churches and parishes within the red and orange zones.
Churches in red zones closed on Sunday, Oct. 11, the first Sunday the regulations were in effect, rather than hold Masses for only a small handful of parishioners, according to the diocese.
“It is unfortunate the court has ruled against us, and as we will abide by these restrictions, the churches in the red zones are closed until further notice.” Bishop DiMarzio said the statement. “The Mass attendance limits of 10 people are extremely difficult to implement because we never want to turn away worshippers. It is unfortunate that our inalienable constitutional right to worship is still impeded despite the efforts we have made.”
But the diocese isn’t giving up its fight.
“Despite this loss, we will continue to press our leaders for policies that consider the individual circumstances of houses of worship,” the statement continues. “We will also continue to advocate for places of worship to be classified as essential, for there is nothing more necessary today than a community of believers, united in prayer, asking the Lord to end this pandemic.”
The decision came a day after Garaufis presided over the four-hour hearing.
The diocese had high hopes going into the Oct. 15 hearing because it appeared as if the new hearing was giving the lawsuit a second wind.
The hearing marked a quick turnaround for the diocese, which suffered a setback a week earlier when Judge Eric Komitee denied a request for a temporary restraining order to stop the governor from implementing the regulations. Garaufis was originally supposed to preside over the Oct. 8 hearing. Komitee heard the case on an emergency basis.
After Komitee’s decision, Randy Mastro, the attorney representing the diocese, wrote a letter to Garaufis requesting a new hearing, which was granted by Garaufis.
While several neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens have seen increases in COVID-19 cases, the Catholic churches in those neighborhoods have not seen a spike, according to Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.