The Diocese of Brooklyn is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court in its case against New York’s COVID restrictions on churches.
On Thursday, the diocese asked the Supreme Court for relief from the state of New York’s COVID rule limiting attendance at some diocesan churches to just 10 people while allowing some businesses to remain open without capacity limits.
In a statement provided to CNA on Friday, the diocese said it is “committed to reopening our churches, safely, and to vindicate our First Amendment rights.”
“We are confident we will prevail for the good of our churches and those of faith who want to operate safely yet continue to suffer under the Governor's express restrictions on ‘houses of worship,’” the diocese stated.
In October, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order curbing some public gatherings in certain localities, due to the reported rapid spread of the coronavirus in those districts.
His order limited some houses of worship to hold indoor services at just 25% capacity or 10 people—whichever number was smaller—effectively limiting Mass attendance to just one priest and nine parishioners.
Cuomo’s original order recognized certain geographic zones where the virus was spreading, and labeled them by color—red for the districts with the worst outbreaks of the virus, followed by orange zones with less serious outbreaks, and then yellow zones.
In the “red” zones, indoor religious services were effectively limited to just 10 people; in the “orange” zones, that limit was 25 people or 33% capacity, whichever number was smaller; churches in “yellow” zones were allowed to operate at 50% capacity.
The Brooklyn diocese sued over the restrictions, claiming that it had set up safety measures at churches that were being faithfully followed, and that there had been no known transmission of the virus traced to indoor Masses.
“It has been our contention that Catholics in Brooklyn and Queens have been penalized by a broad-brush approach when we are not the cause of the spreading of the contagion,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio wrote in a Nov. 11 column in the diocesan newspaper The Tablet.
Both a federal district court and an appeals court ruled against the diocese, which has now appealed its case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The diocese argued in its appeal that Cuomo’s order allows “numerous secular businesses to operate without any capacity restrictions” while subjecting churches to the attendance limits.
For instance, businesses deemed “essential” by the state—and thus not subject to capacity limits in the “red” zones—included “supermarkets and grocery stores, hardware stores, convenience stores, pet food stores, banks, brokers’ offices, and accounting firms,” the diocese stated in its complaint.
In the “orange” zones, “even the vast majority of businesses designated ‘non-essential’ can open without capacity restrictions,” the diocese said, while churches are subject to either 33% or 25-person capacity limits.
The “orange” zones have since been “eliminated,” DiMarzio wrote in his column. Yet some churches subject to the strictest “red” zone rules “are literally across the street from the ‘yellow’ zones where 50 percent occupancy is allowed.”
As of Nov. 8, the diocese tweeted that five churches once located in a “red zone” are no longer in one, and have since reopened for Mass after being closed for four weeks.
“The government has a right and duty to protect the health of citizens, but this duty cannot be so broad that the right to freely exercise one’s faith is extinguished,” DiMarzio wrote in his column.
The diocese needs to fight in court, he argued, in order to prevent possible future infringements on religious freedom.
“The issue of religious freedom is one that must be on our radar because, in the future, we might see further attempts to redefine the meaning of religious freedom and relegate us not just to be inside of our churches, but even dictating the number of people who are allowed to enter our churches,” he wrote.