A federal appeals court in New York has struck down some of the restrictions imposed on places of worship by state governor Andrew Cuomo. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has blocked the enforcement of an executive order which capped religious gathering to groups of 10 or 25 persons depending on local infection rates.
In so-called "red zone" hotspots, where infection rates are high, Cuomo's restrictions stipulated that places of worship must be limited to 10 people, of 25 per cent capacity (whichever is lower). The lawsuit, filed by several religious groups including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, claimed that Cuomo has placed more stringent restrictions on religious gatherings compared to secular ones.
The plaintiffs argued that the rules have impeded on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
The court's three-judge panel agreed, saying that the restrictions "discriminate against religion".
“The restrictions challenged here specially and disproportionately burden religious exercise," wrote Circuit Judge Michael Park in the ruling.
“We conclude that [Cuomo’s] Order discriminates against religion on its face.”
The majority of the court added that "no public interest is served by maintaining an unconstitutional policy when constitutional alternatives are available to achieve the same goal". They added that the restrictions “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” and that “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten".
Avi Schick, a lawyer for Agudath Israel, praised the court's decision, noting that it “will be felt way beyond the Covid context".
“It is a clear statement … that government can’t disfavor religious conduct merely because it sees no value in religious practice," Schick added.