Orthodox Jewish Groups Turn to U.S. Supreme Court to Lift New York's COVID-19 Restrictions

Danielle Ziri
New York
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NYPD officer attempts to peacefully disperse a crowd of Jewish Orthodox community members gathering around journalists, Wednesday, October 7, 2020.
NYPD officer attempts to peacefully disperse a crowd of Jewish Orthodox community members gathering around journalists, Wednesday, October 7, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK – The Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America asked the U.S. Supreme Court this week to lift New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 restrictions on attending houses of worship – the group’s latest attempt to reverse the measures.

The filing comes after Agudath lost a similar lawsuit in federal court last month. It argues that Cuomo’s restrictions are discriminatory and specifically target the Orthodox Jewish community because they “have eliminated the ability of many Jews to worship on important religious holy days.”

The filing adds that “none of this is necessary to protect public health” and claims the restrictions violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

“The Governor publicly asserted that other Orthodox Jews had violated his prior rules, and therefore the Governor imposed severe restrictions on worship across several Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods,” states the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Agudath Israel of America, Agudath Israel of Kew Gardens, Agudath Israel of Madison as well as Rabbi Yisroel Reisman and Steven Saphirstein.

“Applicants themselves are not alleged to have violated any public health or safety rules. To the contrary, they have carefully and successfully complied with mask requirements, social distancing, and capacity constraints,” the document continued. “Yet the Governor’s guilt-by-religious-association restrictions have made it impossible for applicants and their members to exercise their religious faith.”

Cuomo had imposed limitations in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn and other parts of the state after an uptick in COVID-19 cases was recorded in October. The restrictions included a cap on religious services set at 10 individuals as well as school and business closures. The introduction of the restrictions coincided with the celebrations of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the last of the fall High Holy Days, which are generally celebrated with large gatherings and dancing.

Cuomo’s move generated much anger from community members who felt singled out and took their frustration to the streets. Hundreds of orthodox Jews protested in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn last month, with some of the demonstrations turning violent.

The COVID-19 restrictions were dubbed the Cluster Action Initiative and identified zones with upticks in coronavirus cases, divided into “yellow,” “orange” and “red” zones, with the latter being the worst hotspots of infection with the most restrictive guidelines.

Orthodox Jewish groups are not the only ones taking legal action against the Cuomo administration. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn filed a similar writ of injunction relief with the Supreme Court.

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