U.S. District Judge Eric Komitee ruled against the diocese’s preliminary injunction against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New Cluster Action initiative, which was implemented last week in response to the uptick in COVID-19 infection rates in Brooklyn and Queens.
Under the governor’s executive order, houses of worship must restrict attendance at mass gatherings based on where they are located. In sites that fall within a red zone, attendance is limited to 25 percent capacity, with no more than 10 people allowed.
The orange zone limits attendance to 33 percent capacity and no more than 25 people, while the yellow zone limits capacity to 50 percent.
According to the Diocese of Brooklyn, 14 churches fall within a red zone and 13 others are inside the orange zone.
“We are disappointed by last night’s initial ruling, but this is only the beginning of the case and we expect ultimately to prevail,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in a statement issued on Saturday morning. “There is no reason for this latest interference with our First Amendment right to celebrate mass together, so we will continue to press the courts and our elected officials to end it as soon as possible.”
DiMarzio said in light of the judge’s initial decision, churches in Brooklyn and Queens were “left with no choice” but to abide by the governor’s new restrictions this past weekend.
“Last night’s initial decision is a sad day for our church community,” he added, “but we will not let it deter us from our faith.”
The diocese filed the lawsuit in federal court last Thursday on the basis of a violation of their First Amendment right. The legal action claimed that the state’s executive order “arbitrarily” reduced capacity at Catholic churches.
The lawsuit also argued that churches “played an inconsequential role” in the COVID-19 spikes. The diocese closed churches for 16 weeks between March and July.
DiMarzio noted that congregants have abided by the rules, including wearing masks during mass and sitting six feet apart, with a row roped off in between. Pastors have installed hand sanitizers at the entrances of churches, which are also cleaned and sanitized after masses.
There is also no Communion-giving on the tongue, as people receive it in their hands, DiMarzio said.
“Public officials have a sacred duty to do right by those they serve, but this is simply wrong and wrong-headed,” attorney Randy Mastro said. “This religious community will be denied its most fundamental right, the free exercise of religion, for no legitimate reason whatsoever.”
In addition to the diocese being denied a temporary restraining order on Friday, a different federal judge also ruled against Agudath Israel of America, a group representing Orthodox Jewish organizations, in their own lawsuit against the state.
DiMarzio, who spoke outside St. Pancras Church in Glendale on Saturday, said he sees no contagion happening at Brooklyn or Queens churches. He said the “blanket prohibition” against religious gatherings doesn’t make any sense.
As for the diocese’s next step, DiMarzio said they are looking at all options.
“We had a conference call this morning, we’re putting it all together,” he said. “The firm that’s handling this wants some time to think about it.”
For now, churches in Brooklyn and Queens are closed, DiMarzio said, but will livestream masses.
“We’ve been doing that during the pandemic, so at least people get some spiritual help,” he added. “But as far as reopening, until we are within the law, we will not.”