New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, his Attorney General Letitia James, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are being sued by two Catholic priests from upstate New York and a trio of Orthodox Jewish congregants from Brooklyn for violation of civil rights by prejudicial orders and selective enforcement.
The federal lawsuit, filed June 10, 2020, in United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, charges the governor, attorney general, and mayor with violating the plaintiffs’ rights to free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, assembly and expressive association, and due process, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Governor Cuomo is also accused of acting against New York state law and the New York State Constitution. Senior Judge Gary L. Sharpe has ordered the defendants to file a response by noon (Eastern) on June 15, 2020.
Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara explained the key points of the lawsuit: “These orders, both the emergency stay-home and reopening plan declarations, clearly discriminate against houses of worship. They are illegally content based, elaborate, arbitrary and pseudo-scientific. The governor and his agents, along with New York City’s mayor have employed favoritism and political platforms against people of faith.” He noted that, in addition to the unconstitutional and discriminatory nature of Governor Cuomo’s orders, and Attorney General James’ and Mayor de Blasio’s enforcement thereof, the “so-called science” is irrational. “Why is a large worship gathering deemed more dangerous than a mass protest, full of shouting, arm-waving people in close proximity to one another?”
The question points to what the plaintiffs view as particularly egregious – the blatant double standard that Cuomo and de Blasio have applied. During the time that religious worship services have been banned or restricted, mass protests have gone unchecked. On June 4, de Blasio, not wearing the face mask he requires of others, attended and addressed a mass political gathering at New York City’s Cadman Plaza. Neither the ten-person limit nor the social distancing he and Cuomo prescribe for “non-essential gatherings” were observed at the rally. Days later, in Williamsburg, New York, a small group of Hasidic Jewish children was kicked out of a park by a police officer enforcing Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s ten-person limit on “non-essential gatherings.” In late April, de Blasio had threatened the Jewish community with arrests and prosecutions for “illegal” mass religious gatherings and personally appeared on the scene to ensure the New York Police Department’s dispersal of a Jewish funeral gathering.
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New York theaters that are supposed to be closed until the yet to occur “Phase Four” of Cuomo’s reopening plan have opened their premises to protestors for rest, wi-fi use, bathroom visits, and provision of
water and snacks – with instructions to keep police out of the premises. There has been no objection or interference by de Blasio or Cuomo in these operations that conflict with the same executive orders used to disrupt and deny religious worship gatherings.
“It is time to end New York’s experiment in absolute monarchy,” said Ferrara. “We are asking the court to put an end to these unconstitutional executive orders and their prejudicial enforcement.”
The complaint details many abuses, including:
- In an unprecedented abuse of power, defendants have exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to create, over the past three months, a veritable dictatorship by means of a complex web of defendant Cuomo’s executive orders.
- By these executive orders, the defendants have imposed and selectively enforced “social distancing” under a “lockdown” of virtually every aspect of the social, political, religious and economic life of New York’s 8.3 million residents on the pretext of “public health,” but with numerous exceptions that these defendants have deemed permissible according to their value judgments, including mass demonstrations of thousands of people of which they approve.
- Defendants Cuomo, James, and de Blasio have enforced Cuomo’s “lockdown” by threat of criminal prosecution and actual prosecution, including $1000 fines for the newly created offense of violating Cuomo’s “Social Distancing Protocol.”
- Cuomo’s constantly morphing official Guidance Document for the interpretation and application of his executive orders and the “Social Distancing Protocol” have specifically forbidden “congregate services within houses of worship” and “congregations of groups for religious service or ceremony,” thus singling out the free exercise of religion for strict regulation under the “Social Distancing Protocol.”
- This explicit ban on “congregate worship” was followed by a strict ban on “nonessential gatherings” of more than ten people that still applies in New York City and other regions not in “Phase Two” of defendant Cuomo’s elaborate, arbitrary and pseudo-scientific “NY Forward” Plan “reopening New York and building back better.”
- The ten-person limit on “non-essential” gatherings has reduced the religious services that plaintiffs participate in or conduct to miniscule congregations.
- On or about June 5, however, defendant Cuomo announced that he had “relaxed” his “Social Distancing Protocol” to “allow” religious gatherings at 25% of the capacity of houses of worship in some regions, thereby specifically regulating religion – and only religion – once again.
Read the Thomas More Society’s Verified Complaint for Civil Rights Violations, Injunctive Relief and a Declaratory Judgement on behalf of Rev. Steven Soos, Rev. Nicholas Stamos, Daniel Schonbrun, Elchanan Perr, and Mayer Mayerfeld, filed with the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York in Rev. Steven Soos, et al v. Andrew M. Cuomo, et al on June 10, 2020, here.