By David Brand
The Diocese of Brooklyn has sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo in federal court to block new rules limiting capacity at houses of worship in parts of Queens and Brooklyn.
The new capacity rules affect Catholic churches and other houses of worship in communities with rising rates of COVID-19, regions that have been separated into three zones based on their proximity to state-designated virus clusters. In red cluster zones, like Forest Hills and Far Rockaway, no more than 10 people at a time can enter a house of worship. In adjacent orange “warning” zones, like Rego Park, capacity is capped at 25 people.
Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said the restrictions violate worshippers’ First Amendment right to freedom of religion because churches have managed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by adhering to health guidelines.
“The executive orders this week have left us with no other option than to go to court,” DiMarzio said. “The state has completely disregarded the fact that our safety protocols have worked and it is an insult to once again penalize all those who have made the safe return to church work.”
DiMarzio said church leaders across Queens and Brooklyn have enforced social distancing on the Communion line and in pews, initiated regular cleanings and provided sanitizer at church entrances since reopening for mass on July 5. Churches closed for in-person services in mid-March, just before Holy Week and Easter Sunday.
The diocese has hired former New York City Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro to represent them in their effort to block Cuomo’s executive order. Mastro recently sued New York City on behalf of Manhattan residents seeking to remove homeless men from an Upper West Side hotel.
“Public officials have a sacred duty to do right by those they serve, but this is simply wrong and wrong-headed,” Mastro said in a statement.. “If this latest executive order stands, parishioners won’t be able to go to Mass this Sunday, even though the Diocese has done everything right to ensure safe conditions in its churches.”
Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts have sided with governors across the country in religious liberty lawsuits seeking to reopen houses of worship.