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Judge Slaps Down de Blasio And Cuomo Restrictions On Religious Liberty

Cuomo De Blasio
America’s worst mayor, New York’s Bill de Blasio, and America’s most hypocritical governor, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, got a spanking from Judge Gary Sharpe sitting in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, which recently  granted a group of religious plaintiffs a preliminary injunction enjoining de Blasio, Cuomo and their vile minions from prohibiting certain religious gatherings.

The federal case is Soos et al., v. Cuomo et al., No. 1:20-cv-651 (N.D.N.Y)

Previously, the Justice Department wrote Mayor de Blasio to express the concern that New York City was permitting large gatherings for political protest while not permitting in-person religious gatherings when the Constitution’s First Amendment protects both free speech rights and religious exercise.

New York City had vigorously enforced restrictions on religious gatherings, including by sending police officers to disperse numerous gatherings of the Jewish community, including outdoor funerals.  At the same time, Mayor de Blasio marched in large in-person political gatherings concerning the recent tragic death of George Floyd and made statements suggesting — in a manner forbidden by the First Amendment — that religious exercise was less valued and protected by New York City than political exercise.

WHIO TV reported the plaintiffs, two Roman Catholic priests from upstate New York and three Orthodox Jewish congregants from Brooklyn, argued that the restrictions violated their First Amendment rights to practice their religion.

The plaintiffs said the restrictions forced the Rev. Steven Soos and the Rev. Nicholas Stamos to either turn away parishioners who wished to attend Mass "or to hold more Masses per day than are possible.”

Christopher Ferrara, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called the unequal restrictions “an irrational targeting of houses of worship.”

“The idea that houses of worship are some deadly viral vector unlike anything else is just superstition,” Ferrara said in a telephone interview. “There’s no science to support that.”

Restrictions limiting the number of people who can attend outdoor religious gatherings will also be lifted by the injunction.

The judge noted that both Cuomo and de Blasio have expressed approval for protests against racism and police brutality that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month while continuing to support restrictions on religious gatherings.

“Governor Cuomo and Mayor 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," he said.

In his injunction, Senior Judge Gary L. Sharpe of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York in Albany ruled that de Blasio, Cuomo and New York Attorney General Letitia James could not enforce any indoor gathering limitations against plaintiffs greater than those imposed on various businesses during the state's Phase 2 plan for reopening as the pandemic subsides.

In his order, Sharpe noted that offices, retail stores, salons and restaurants -- all now permitted to open at 50% capacity indoors -- involve the congregating of people for a length of time. Churches were limited to 25% capacity indoors.

Sharpe also said that provided the plaintiffs in the case adhere to the city and state's social-distancing requirements, the government cannot enforce any limitation for outdoor gatherings.

In the proceedings before Judge Sharpe the Trump administration weighed in heavily on the side of the religious groups and individuals, with Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division issuing the following statement in response to the federal court ruling:

"Today’s federal court decision is a win for religious freedom and the civil liberties of New Yorkers. Government cannot discriminate by protecting free speech and the right to assemble while threatening or limiting religious exercise – it must protect all rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. The court’s decision is consistent with positions and arguments made by the United States Department of Justice in similar filings and letters, including in New York City and elsewhere around the country. The Department of Justice will continue to support people of faith who seek equal treatment against threats and actions by public officials who discriminate against them because of their religion. The Constitution and our oath to defend and protect it require nothing less."

Thomas More Society special counsel Christopher Ferrara, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement reported by Catholic News Service that Sharpe "was able to see through the sham of Gov. Cuomo's 'Social Distancing Protocol,' which went right out the window as soon as he and Mayor de Blasio saw a mass protest movement they favored taking to the streets by the thousands."

"Suddenly, the limit on 'mass gatherings' was no longer necessary to 'save lives,'" Ferrara added. "Yet they were continuing to ban high school graduations and other outdoor gatherings exceeding a mere 25 people."

Ferrara called Sharpe's decision "an important step toward inhibiting the suddenly emerging trend of exercising absolute monarchy on pretext of public health. What this kind of regime really meant in practice is freedom for me, but not for thee."

Sharpe noted it is not "the judiciary’s role to second guess the likes of Gov. Cuomo or Mayor de Blasio when it comes to decisions they make in such troubling times, that is, until those decisions result in the curtailment of fundamental rights without compelling justification."

"There is nothing materially different about a graduation ceremony and a religious gathering such that defendants’ justifications for a difference in treatment can be found compelling," the judge wrote.

He also said de Blasio gave competing messages that supported the protest crowds while at the same time argued against large religious gatherings. These simultaneous messages, Sharpe said, "clearly undermine the legitimacy" of his argument that crowd restrictions were a matter of protecting the health and safety of the public.

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