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A federal judge in Syracuse ruled in favour of two New York couples who challenged the state's 50-person cap on wedding celebrations.
Judge Glenn Suddaby granted the happy couples' request for a temporary restraining order, preventing state and local authorities from enforcing the size limit in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions. The ruling now allows wedding venues to operate under the same rules as restaurants.
Suddaby’s restraining order reads:
"Defendants are PRELIMINARILY ENJOINED from enforcing the above-referenced 50-person limit (under Executive Order 202.45 and attendant regulations, guidance, and directives) against Plaintiffs in the operation of their weddings at the above-referenced venues. In holding their weddings, Plaintiffs are required to comply at all times with the relevant health and safety precautions that have been outlined by the State related to the operations of restaurants, including (but not limited to) not having a gathering of individuals that is more than 50-percent of the relevant venue's capacity."
In a civil rights lawsuit filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of New York, the couples point out inconsistencies in the state's pandemic response policies, citing a violation of Civil Rights Act 42:1983 under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Executive Order 202.45.
While restaurants could reopen under 50 percent of normal capacity, weddings were arbitrarily curbed to 50 attendees.
"This cap on religious gatherings is enforced despite the fact that restaurants are explicitly permitted to serve patrons up to 50 percent of their regular occupancy limits which in medium to larger restaurants can be well over 50 people," the suit contends as reported by WIVB-TV.
"In effect, a restaurant with a regular capacity of 200 patrons may be able to serve 100 people on a given night in compliance with the executive orders, but it is arbitrarily limited to serving 50 people if the people are dining there during a wedding," the argument continues.
The complaint also calls attention to the mass protests in the wake of George Floyd's that were not banned by the state, while the couple's First and Fourteenth Amendments were violated by "forbidding them to preside or participate in religious weddings according to the dictates of their conscious and religious beliefs."
Among the defendants are Cuomo, Empire State Development Corporation, Erie County Department of Health, and Attorney General Letitia James.
Cuomo's lawyers assert that the gatherings ban is a valid expression of the state's emergency power policing health and safety.
"There is a real and substantial relation between the COVID-19 pandemic and the gathering restriction, and the Court should not second-guess the State's response to a health crisis," the state argues in court documents.
The lawsuit was filed by plaintiffs Jenna DiMartile and her fiancé Justin Crawford, Pamela Giglia and her fiancé Joe Durolek, and wedding officiant David Shamenda, who had booked weddings at The Sterling at Arrowhead Golf Club in Akron, which seats 438 people and legally holds over 200 dining guests. The lawsuit was initiated by Lucas James, co-owner of the golf course.
"The wedding venue industry has been decimated by Cuomo's policies on this and it’s very damaging to local businesses," James stated to Syracuse. "Hundreds of employees at these venues have been laid off and their families are struggling. It's been a disaster."
The ruling arrived just minutes before DiMartile walked down the aisle, who had already planned for 115 attendees.
"I think it’s something worth fighting for, if we really do believe in the meaning of marriage for people to be witnesses of our covenant before God," DiMartile told Syracuse. "We respect our venue for believing in that fight as well."
Cuomo's press secretary Caitlin Girouard described Suddaby's decision as "irresponsible at best, as it would allow for large, non-essential gatherings that endanger public health."
"We will pursue all available legal remedies immediately and continue defending the policies that have led New York to having—and maintaining—one of the lowest infection rates in the country, while cases continue to rise in dozens of other states," Girouard responded.