New York Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo’s policy restricting capacity at places of worship, was found to be discriminatory and in violation of the First Amendment, a panel on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled Monday.
Judge Michael Park wrote, "The Governor’s order is subject to strict scrutiny because it is not neutral on its face and imposes greater restrictions on religious activities than on secular ones."
The decision of the three judge panel was unanimous.
"The restrictions challenged here specifically and disproportionately burden religious exercise, and thus 'strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,'" the court said, quoting a Nov. 25 Supreme Court decision.
The Plaintiffs in the case, including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the Orthodox Jewish umbrella group Agudath Israel of America and two other synagogues, contested Cuomo's restrictions saying that his failure to consider places of worship "essential businesses" infringed upon their First Amendment rights.
"No public interest is served by maintaining an unconstitutional policy when constitutional alternatives are available to achieve the same goal," Park added.
Cuomo's order restricted attendance in places of worship in "red zones" to 10 people or 25 percent, whichever was lower, and in "orange zones" to 25 people or 33 percent.
Agudath Israel lawyer, Avi Schick, said Monday’s decision will be felt far beyond it's current coronavirus context.
"It is a clear statement,... that government can’t disfavor religious conduct merely because it sees no value in religious practice," Schick said.