A federal court ruled against the Diocese of Brooklyn on Friday in its case against new coronavirus restrictions which impose local limits on Mass attendance.
The diocese had sued the state of New York on Oct. 8 over new public health restrictions that limited the size of gatherings in certain “hot spots” around the state, or localities where the new coronavirus has been spreading. Certain churches in Brooklyn and Queens were effectively limited to holding 10 or 25 people for indoor Masses, under the new rules.
On Friday, a federal judge for the Eastern District of New York denied the diocese’s motion to halt the implementation of the restrictions. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said he was “extremely disappointed” by the ruling and is considering an appeal.
The diocese had argued that religious institutions had been wrongly singled out as “non essential,” and held churches to a higher standard of restrictions compared to other venues, including retail outlets.
"Despite this loss," DiMarzio said, "we will continue to press our leaders for policies that consider the individual circumstances of houses of worship."
"We will also continue to advocate for places of worship to be classified as essential, for there is nothing more necessary today than a community of believers, united in prayer, asking the Lord to end this pandemic."
In his opinion on Friday, Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled that the state did not unlawfully single out religion for its restrictions, noting that its rules applied to other non-religious gatherings as well. New York also presented sufficient evidence to show that its decision was based on scientific and epidemiological considerations, he said.
If the court ruled in favor of the diocese and religious gatherings subsequently resulted in spreading the virus, Garaufis said, such a scenario would result in “avoidable death” and “overwhelming” damage; conversely, if the court sided wrongly with the state, it would bring a less grave consequence: “severely curtailed in-person ceremonies.”
Bishop DiMarzio, however, said that it was “a shame our parishioners in the red zones cannot return to Mass when the judge acknowledged we have done everything right.”
In a previous interview with CNA, Bishop DiMarzio said that the diocese had worked with public health officials to reopen churches safely in July; safety measures such as mask mandates and social distancing had been enforced, and churches were open only at 25% capacity.
“The proof of our compliance is the fact that we have not had any COVID outbreaks or significant cases in either our churches or schools,” he said on Friday in a written statement.
Despite refusing an injunction, Judge Garaufis praised the diocese on Friday for having “been an exemplar of community leadership” that “at each step…has been ahead of the curve, enforcing stricter safety protocols than the State required at the given moment.”
The new state rules established a color-code system for the severity of virus outbreaks within various localities; “red” zones represented the worst outbreaks and thus merited the strictest limits, while “orange” zones represented the next level of outbreak.
Churches in “red” zones are limited to 25% capacity or ten people, whichever number is smaller; churches in “orange” zones are limited to 33% capacity or 25 people, whichever number is smaller. Bishop DiMarzio told CNA that churches in the diocese are large and have been safely accommodating people at 25% capacity for months without a known outbreak.
Following the ruling, churches in the “red” zones will be closed, Bishop DiMarzio said, as the 10-person limit is “extremely difficult to implement because we never want to turn away worshippers.”
The state’s new rules affected religious and social gatherings and “non-essential” businesses such as gyms, barber shops, and hair salons, but some businesses including grocery stores were labeled “essential” and were not subject to the restrictions.
The rules presented a double-standard, DiMarzio told CNA on Friday before the court issued its ruling, arguing that religious gatherings are “essential” and should only be subject to reasonable health restrictions--such as the safety measures already enforced by churches for months.
“We are relegated to the sidelines, religion,” he said. “Religion is the problem of society, [according to] the way people think today.”
“In the past, you would think the non-profit sector, religion, was a pillar of the society along with the business community and with the government," said DiMarzio.
"This was what held society together. Now, that kind of a thesis of how society works is long since gone, unfortunately,” he said.