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Federal appeals court blocks Cuomo’s limits on religious gatherings in New York

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled Monday that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on the number of attendees at religious gatherings were likely to be a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Court enjoined the state from enforcing these limits, put in place to address the spread of COVID-19 in areas with the highest prevalence.

Governor Cuomo issued an executive order in October that categorized areas into “zones,” which were assigned colors corresponding to their COVID-19 rates. In all zones, a capacity limit was imposed on houses of worship, but not on essential businesses.

These measures were reviewed by the Supreme Court in late November, and it held similarly that the executive order be blocked because the plaintiffs, including Agudath Israel of America and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, were likely to succeed in challenging these measures once the case was fully litigated.

The Second Circuit took particular issue with the separate identification of houses of worship for certain restrictions. It found the classification of essential businesses versus non-essential businesses, which also have different restrictions, to be “questionable” in some cases. It pointed to the fact that Cuomo “has not asserted that his categorization of businesses as ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’ was based on any assessment of COVID-19 transmission risk.” Particularly, Cuomo failed to cite data supporting his belief that places of worship have greater transmission rates.