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A group of Jewish organizations and the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn are separately suing Governor Andrew Cuomo to stop the state from enforcing attendance limits on house of worship in parts of New York that have been designated for new restrictions due to rising coronavirus cases.The lawsuits mark an expected and ongoing legal battle spearheaded by religious groups who have decried the governor’s limits on religious services amid the pandemic. On Tuesday, Cuomo called for zoned shutdowns in four virus hotspot regions, including portions of South Brooklyn and Queens, and two suburban communities in Rockland and Orange counties that are home to significant numbers of Orthodox residents. In “red zones,” areas with the highest test positivity, no more than 10 people will be allowed to attend houses of worship.The complaint by Jewish groups and individuals, which was filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, described the state’s rules as “onerous and discriminatory” and a violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, which protects citizens’ rights to practice religion as they please. Friday marks the start of three major Jewish holidays where tens of thousands of Orthodox individuals in New York state are expected to gather for prayer, Torah readings and other rituals.The groups are asking a judge to issue a temporary restraining order on the house of worship restrictions.“This lawsuit is a last resort,” said Shlomo Werdiger, chairman of the board of Agudath Israel, an influential Orthodox organization and one of the lead plaintiffs. “We would have been able to accomplish much more for these critical public health needs had the governor’s administration worked together with us more closely beforehand. We look forward to working with them next time. Unfortunately, the Governor’s new executive order makes it impossible for us to practice our religion, and we really had no choice but to seek relief in the courts.” The lawsuit also accuses Cuomo of unfairly singling out their community for social distancing violations.Late Thursday, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn announced that it had filed its own lawsuit, also on the basis of the First Amendment right. The complaint says that the order “arbitrarily reduces capacity” at Catholic churches in Queens and Brooklyn that have not had a role in the resurgence of virus cases.“Our churches have the capacity to accommodate many worshippers and to reset our attendance capacity to 10 people maximum in the red zone, and 25 people in the orange zone, when we have had no significant cases, impedes our right to worship and cannot stand,” said Nicholas DiMarzio, Bishop of Brooklyn, in a statement. “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.”In response, Rich Azzopardi, the governor’s senior advisor, said in a statement, “We’ve been sued virtually every day for every action taken. We’re concentrating on reducing the virus in these hot spots and saving lives, period.”In June, two Catholic priests and three Orthodox Jews won a preliminary injunction in federal court that prevented the state from restricting outdoor gatherings as long as social distancing was observed. The state was also ordered to allow houses of worship to open at 50% capacity as opposed to 33%.Under the law, governments can impose restrictions on the public in the name of health and safety, according to Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. She added that they are generally considered constitutional as long as there are reasonable time and place restrictions.During a telephone call with reporters on Thursday, Cuomo defended the latest round of restrictions and compared them to those he ordered during the original March shutdown order.”At one time, we had rules that closed down houses of worship. Synagogues, churches, mosques, et cetera,” he said. “Closing down is more dramatic than the current rule. Why are they so upset about the current rule when there was a previous rule that was more dramatic? Because the previous rules were never enforced, that’s why.”
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