Religious Gatherings Are Indeed Essential

On the evening of Oct. 16, Judge Nicholas Garaufis denied the second request of the Diocese of Brooklyn for a preliminary injunction on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order curtailing the number of people who can participate in religious services and attend Mass in communities with high COVID-19 positivity rates.

The order, which aims to halt the spread of COVID-19 in the “hot zones” in Brooklyn and Queens, allows no more than ten parishioners (nine, since we would have to count the priest celebrant of Holy Mass) to gather to celebrate the Eucharist and for other sacraments and prayer.

This injunction affects more than two dozen churches in the “red zone.” The number of people allowed to worship is so low that the diocese decided to close for public worship the parishes and churches affected by the order rather than only permit a minuscule number of the faithful to attend the Mass. They offered Mass and broadcast it online as an alternative.

It is proven that there have been spikes in the infection rates from COVID-19 in some areas of Brooklyn and Queens. Still, few organizations have done more to enforce social distancing and sanitize its buildings, at great financial costs, than the diocese. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said he hopes that governmental leaders will begin to examine each religious community and house of worship on an individual basis rather than these rather draconian measures that are currently being taken.

It is reasonable to accept any necessary regulations to protect the faithful and the whole of society’s health and safety — and that is what the Diocese of Brooklyn has done since the beginning of the pandemic. But the governor’s new restrictions seem to be needlessly harsh and poorly planned.

They appear to be the work of officials that don’t believe religion is an important matter for our society. We disagree. Religious gatherings are indeed “essential” and should only be subject to reasonable health restrictions, as Bishop DiMarzio has pointed out.

“We are relegated to the sidelines, religion,” he said. “Religion is the problem of society, [according to] the way people think today. In the past, you would think the non-profit sector, religion, was a pillar of the society along with the business community and with the government; this was what held society together. Now, that kind of a thesis of how society works is long since gone, unfortunately.”

The First Amendment famously proclaims: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas describes the virtue of religion as the way that God, who is the source of all being and the principle of all government of things, is acknowledged and worshipped. The virtue of religion is the first among all of the moral virtues. We need prayer and the power of the Eucharist more than anything else right now in this time of illness and confusion. Let your voices be heard to our lawmakers on this issue.