State and local officials across the country began issuing orders in March to ban or limit in-person church gatherings because of the COVID-19 crisis. Religious freedom has always been an issue in these government actions, but the government seemed to treat churches differently than secular organizations.
For example, Nevada’s governor allowed restaurants and stores to operate at 50 percent capacity, but churches were restricted to gatherings of no more than 10 during the state’s COVID-19 re-opening. The state even allowed close-contact businesses like hair salons and barbershops to re-open at 50 percent capacity. After the U.S. Department of Justice sent the governor a letter criticizing him for treating churches unfairly, he modified the restriction, raising the number of congregants to 50 people.
New York’s governor and the city’s mayor restricted church attendance for “public safety” but allowed mass protests, which by their nature are close-contact activities. A federal judge last week pointed out the hypocrisy and issued a preliminary injunction against the government’s restrictions against houses of worship.
Siding with a group of Roman Catholic priests and Orthodox Jewish congregants, Senior U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe wrote that Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill 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. 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.”
From Liberty Counsel:
Sharpe’s order noted that offices, retails stores, salons, and restaurants – all now permitted to open at 50 percent capacity indoors – all involve the congregation of people for a length of time. He stated, “These secular businesses/activities threaten defendants’ interest in slowing the spread of COVID-19 to a similar or greater degree than those of plaintiffs’ and demonstrate that the 25 percent indoor capacity limitation on houses of worship is underinclusive and triggers strict scrutiny review.”
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “It is interesting how Governor Cuomo’s limit on ‘mass gatherings’ suddenly was no longer necessary to ‘save lives’ when he and Mayor de Blasio wanted to endorse a mass protest movement they favored. Yet they were continuing to ban high school graduations and other outdoor gatherings exceeding a mere 25 people. This is a great ruling by Judge Sharpe to stop the blatant discrimination of religious services by these heavy-handed New York government officials.”