A federal judge said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio "exceeded" their executive limits by limiting worship services and condoning mass protests as the state continues to reopen from coronavirus restrictions.
U.S. District Judge Gary L. Sharpe issued a preliminary injunction Friday on behalf of two Catholic priests -- Steven Soos and Nicholas Stamos -- and a trio of Orthodox Jewish congregants -- Elchanan Perr, Daniel Schonborn, and Mayer Mayerfeld -- in Brooklyn, represented by the Thomas More Society.
De Blasio had "simultaneous pro-protest/anti-religious gathering messages" when he "actively encouraged participation in protests and openly discouraged religious gatherings and threatened religious worshipers," Sharpe said in his federal order.
"Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio could have just as easily discouraged protests, short of condemning their message, in the name of public health and exercised discretion to suspend enforcement for public safety reasons instead of encouraging what they knew was a flagrant disregard of the outdoor limits and social distancing rules," the judge added. "They could have also been silent. But by acting as they did, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio sent a clear message that mass protests are deserving of preferential treatment."
Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara celebrated the decision and called Cuomo's executive orders a "sham" that "went right out the window as soon as he and Mayor de Blasio saw a mass protest movement they favored taking to the streets by the thousands."
"Suddenly, the limit on ‘mass gatherings’ was no longer necessary to ‘save lives,’" Ferrara said in a statement to Fox News. "Yet they were continuing to ban high school graduations and other outdoor gatherings exceeding a mere 25 people."
He added, "This decision is an important step toward inhibiting the suddenly emerging trend of exercising absolute monarchy on [the] pretext of public health. What this kind of regime really meant in practice is freedom for me, but not for thee.”
The Justice Department called it a "win for religious freedom and the civil liberties of New Yorkers."
"Government cannot discriminate by protecting free speech and the right to assemble while threatening or limiting religious exercise – it must protect all rights guaranteed under the First Amendment,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said.
He continued: “The court’s decision is consistent with positions and arguments made by the United States Department of Justice in similar filings and letters, including in New York City and elsewhere around the country. The Department of Justice will continue to support people of faith who seek equal treatment against threats and actions by public officials who discriminate against them because of their religion. The Constitution and our oath to defend and protect it require nothing less."
As a result of the federal order, Cuomo, James, and de Blasio are "enjoined and restrained from enforcing any indoor gathering limitations” against the involved houses of worship “greater than imposed for Phase 2 industries,” provided that participants follow the prescribed social distancing.
They are also forbidden from “enforcing any limitation for outdoor gatherings provided that participants in such gatherings follow social distancing requirements as set forth in the applicable executive orders and guidance.”
In his decision, Sharpe notes the limits placed on houses of worship by the New York leaders: Still limiting houses of worship to 25 percent indoor capacity during Phases 2 and 3 and a 25 person outdoor gathering limit in Phase 3 locations, and a 10-person gathering limit in Phase 1 and 2, while allowing mass protests and other numbers for businesses and 150-person outdoor graduation ceremonies.
Among many violations cited in the lawsuit, Thomas More points out de Blasio ignored social distancing and the 10-person limit when he didn't wear a face mask on June 4 while attending and addressing a mass political gathering at New York City's Cadman Plaza. Days later, in Williamsburg, Hasidic Jewish children were kicked out of a park by a police officer enforcing Cuomo and de Blasio's 10-person limit on "non-essential gatherings."
In April, de Blasio threatened the Jewish community -- which had a string of attacks this past winter -- with arrests and prosecutions for "illegal" mass religious gatherings after police in Williamsburg broke up the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz.
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” de Blasio wrote in a tweet. "I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period."
He was forced to apologize for targeting the Jewish community as a whole but doubled down on his remarks, calling it "tough love."