The Agudath Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, and I as its secretary, scored a decisive win along with the Agudath Israel of America and other affiliates against Governor Andrew Cuomo that once and for all barred his infamous Executive Order 202.68 placing restrictions on houses of worship. Chol HaMoed Sukkos may seem long ago, but it was then that this peaceful and orderly clash with government began.
“The Courts have now enjoined all of the restrictions on houses of worship that Governor Cuomo imposed in his Executive Order,” said Avi Schick, a partner at Troutman Pepper and the lawyer representing the Agudath Israel of America to the Queens Jewish Link.
Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto, of the District Court for the Eastern District of New York, issued a permanent injunction against the governor, resulting in an end to a battle that back on Thanksgiving Eve reached the United States Supreme Court, where a preliminary injunction against the restrictions was issued. In the end, freedom of speech and freedom of religion prevailed and remain protected.
It was never fair to specifically target houses of worship, as these measures were a clear violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution.
In the 5-4 Supreme Court decision, the issue was kicked back to the lower courts, resulting in the permanent injunction on Tuesday morning, February 9, explaining to any who question that religion is on par with business and entertainment dealings.
“There was no basis to treat shuls and davening more harshly than conduct such as office work and shopping. We are grateful that religious practice has been restored to its rightful place as the most essential of all activities,” added Schick, who is also the president of Rabbi Yisroel Reisman’s Agudath Israel Zichron Chaim Zvi of Madison.
The legal team of Agudath Israel’s first victory, together with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, came on November 26, with the US Supreme Court issuing an injunction that disallowed zoned micro-cluster ten-person and 25 percent maximum-capacity limitations in houses of worship.
Later, on December 18, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals heard the appeal by Agudath Israel, which decried the restrictions not as a public health protection, but rather as eliminating the ability for many Jews to worship on important religious holy days.
Ten days later, that court found Cuomo’s order was not neutral towards religion, and “devalues religious reasons” for congregating “by judging them to be of lesser import than nonreligious reasons.” The order was said to “discriminate against religion on its face.”
On January 19, 2021, Matsumoto’s court entered an Order stating, “In light of the Second Circuit’s decision on appeal, the plaintiffs’ Motion for a Preliminary Injunction against Executive Order 202.68’s ten- and 25-person occupancy limits is GRANTED.” On January 25, his Court scheduled a preliminary injunction hearing for February 8.
“We wish we wouldn’t have had to go to court. But we had no choice, as Agudath Israel vigorously opposes any action that jeopardizes individuals’ first amendment rights to freely exercise religion, or which restricts religious practices differently than other activities. Religious freedom is the bedrock and touchstone on which this nation was founded. At the same time, we forcefully reiterate our call for ongoing care and prudence – in all activities – in light of COVID-19,” commented Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel.
Any congregation that received a summons in violation of the Executive Order should feel confident in having it dismissed. Either the City will opt to rescind and invalidate the citations and the penalties levied, or further action will be taken to ensure a remedy. Please contact the Queens Jewish Link if your shul has an issue with a summons.
By Shabsie Saphirstein