Religious Rights on Health Issues: Catholics and Jews call out coronavirus restrictions as violation of religious rights

On January 21, 2020, the US recorded its very first case of COVID-19 and in just a few months, the novel coronavirus had easily swept off the cities swarming hospitals and stacking up thousands of dead bodies. 

The image of the pandemic’s effect was not just mirrored in deadbeat doctors and nurses asking people to wear masks but had also run deep into the streets. In a horrifying state of an unknown virus, communities were locked down, businesses were closed, employees were laid off, people were homeless, and any unnecessary social interaction during this time was discouraged and scrutinized. 

On March 1, New York recorded its first case which quickly escalated into tens of thousands of state residents dead with hundreds of thousands more infected in a short span of time. By March 20, in a worsening progression, New York state Governor Andrew Cuomu had shut down all nonessential businesses statewide including an absolute ban on gatherings of any size. 

The ban eased by the end of May followed by the partial reopening of New York in June. “We went from the worst situation in the nation or frankly the world — we bent the curve and we brought the spread down dramatically,” Cuomo said in an interview with ABC News’ Amy Robach in Albany, New York when asked about the first 100 days of New York’s response to COVID-19. 

coronavirus

But on October 6, a spike in infections had caused the state to close down six parts of New York City, Binghamton, Rockland, and Orange Counties shutting down businesses, closing schools, and limiting attendance at houses of worship to ten people only. Most of the affected areas were homes to Orthodox Jews and had prompted protests and occasional violence in the communities calling the move as “anti-semitic”. 

In a 33 page complaint citing historical religious persecution, three Orthodox Jewish congregations filed a lawsuit in the US District Court in Manhattan. According to a report by Reuters, the complaint filed said that “Cuomo had outlawed “all but the most minimal communal religious worship.”” 

“For Jews, communal worship is an essential service for which untold thousands have risked and sacrificed their lives,” the congregations, Ohalei Shem D’Nitra, Yesheos Yakov and Netzach Yisroel, wrote.

Each year starting from 2007, Pew Research Center had observed an increasing hostility against Jews in most parts of the world with the US ranking under a “moderate” level of religious harassment, according to an article by NPR in 2015. 

The restrictions also affected the Catholics in the Brooklyn neighborhood and while Bishop Raymond Chappetto had testified that the diocese had imposed state-required safety measures and even more, they were no exemption. The lawyers for the diocese contended that there was no rational basis for implementing the same restrictions as the infection spikes were occurring in the Jewish communities. 

In the 22-page complaint filed by the church’s lawyers, it said that despite the church’s efforts, “the governor continues to run roughshod over the diocese’s right to worship, without any basis—not a rational one, not a narrowly tailored one, simply none,” according to an article by Crux. The Church filed for a preliminary injunction voiding all restrictions at the US District Court in the borough. 

The injunction was denied by US District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis. In order, he said that “even though the rules harm religious groups, it is not in the public interest to block them if they are helping prevent a wave of new infections.” He added, “In fact, if the court issues an injunction and the state is correct about the acuteness of the threat currently posed by hotspot neighborhoods, the result could be avoidable death on a massive scale like New Yorkers experienced in the spring.”

He also wrote in his decision that the state restrictions were clearly “guided by science, not a desire to target religious practice.” 

State lawyers also said that even the recent decrease from 8% in late September to just under 5% who tested positive for COVID-19 shows that restrictions are working but not enough to get the restrictions lifted. They also noted that the restrictions emplaced allowed houses of worship to remain open while nonessential businesses in the same area (called the “red zone”) were required to close entirely. 

“This response respects the rights of worshipers while curtailing the spread of the virus and protecting the public health from this deadly disease,” Assistant Attorney General Seth Farber said. 

According to Reuters, Cuomo insisted that his measures were not intended to target religious groups and are consistent with other steps in geographical clusters called the “red zones”. 

In an update by The New York Times as of November 10, 2020, the total number of confirmed cases in New York has already reached 536,933 with a death toll of 33,343. Over the past week, there is a recorded average of 2.974 cases per day which is a substantial 83% increase from the average two weeks earlier. 

 

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