Orthodox Jewish Groups Celebrate Supreme Court Ruling Against N.Y. Virus Curbs

In a 5-4 ruling, court backs religious groups challenging New York State's COVID restrictions on houses of worship

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Members of the Orthodox Jewish community speak with NYPD officers, October 7, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Members of the Orthodox Jewish community speak with NYPD officers, October 7, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Credit: John Minchillo,AP

Orthodox Jewish groups in New York celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court's Wednesday ruling which backed Christian and Jewish houses of worship challenging New York State's latest restrictions in coronavirus hot spots.

An October 6 decision by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down non-essential businesses in targeted areas where infections have spiked, including some Brooklyn neighborhoods. It limited gatherings at religious institutions to 10 people in some areas and 25 in others.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court granted requests made by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America, including affiliated congregations Agudath Israel of Kew Garden Hills and Agudath Israel of Madison, to lift Cuomo’s restrictions on attending houses of worship.

“This is a historic victory,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, one of the houses of worship that challenged the governor's order. “This landmark decision will ensure that religious practices and religious institutions will be protected from government edicts that do not treat religion with the respect demanded by the Constitution.”

The chairman of Agudath Israel's Board of Trustees, Shlomo Werdiger, said: “It was not an easy decision for Agudath Israel to go to court over this matter. That is not our preferred means of advocacy. However, the principle at stake was of such monumental importance that we felt impelled to fight to uphold our religious freedom."

Werdiger emphasized that the congregation has "prioritized health" since the pandemic started and "look[s] forward to continuing to work hand in hand with our elected officials to ensure the well-being of our community with a single standard of safety for religious and secular activities."

An ultra-Orthodox boy puts on a mask in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, October 9, 2020.Credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS

Orthodox Union President Mark Bane also lauded the ruling for upholding what he called "an essential American principle – that the government may not impose rules represented as being ’neutral’ but that are actually unfair in their treatment of religious exercise."

Bane congratulated and thanked Agudath Israel of America and the Catholic Archdiocese for advancing this fundamental Constitutional principle on behalf of the Orthodox Union.

“In consideration of this important Supreme Court ruling, and in light of the severe ongoing dangers of the current pandemic, the Orthodox Union reiterates its strong encouragement that all houses of worship continue to vigorously follow applicable health guidelines and adhere to the axiomatic Judaic value and priority of protecting and preserving health and human life,” Bane's statement concluded.

The ruling was welcomed by Yossi Gestetner, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, who wrote on Twitter: "Arrogant Cuomo got decked by SCOTUS in a 5-4 ruling. Basically, governors cannot impose tighter rules on religious activity than on secular activity. A 10-person limit for a house of worship imposed by Cuomo while stores can have times over that amount is unconstitutional."

New York State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, who represents Borough Park and parts of Midwood, both in Brooklyn, also took to Twitter to praise the decision, writing: "The Supreme Court sides with the people! @NYGovCuomo's Executive Order illegally targeted religious communities."

The houses of worship said that the limits violated religious freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, and that their facilities were singled out for more stringent restrictions than essential businesses, such as food stores. 

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