The Diocese of Brooklyn filed a lawsuit in federal court Oct. 8 against New York state, charging Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new orders reducing church capacity violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
“The executive orders this week have left us with no other option than to go to court,” Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in a statement.
“We vehemently disagree with the capacity limits being placed on us. They are disrespectful to Catholics who have only been abiding by the rules,” he added. “We do not agree with such limitations because they completely disregard the fact that our safety protocols have worked.”
On Oct. 6, Cuomo announced new restrictions on houses of worship in response to a spike in Covid-19 cases in densely populated ZIP codes he has identified as “hot zones.” He said the state has created three zones—red, orange and yellow—each with different restrictions, including on congregation sizes.
Some Catholic parishes in the Brooklyn Diocese are in the “red zone,” meaning their churches are being forced to reduce capacity to a maximum of 10 people inside at one time, and some are in the “orange zone,” where only 25 people at one time can attend Mass. A “yellow zone” designation means a 50 percent capacity.
In a news release, the diocese said Cuomo’s new limits “arbitrarily” reduce capacity at Catholic churches throughout the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, “locations of which have played an inconsequential role in the hot spot zone Covid-19 spikes.”
Having to reset the attendance for churches that have the “capacity to accommodate many worshippers” to comply with the red zone and orange zone rules “when we have had no significant cases, impedes our right to worship and cannot stand,” the diocese said.
Before the churches reopening July 5 for weekend Masses—after being closed for Mass for 16 weeks—the diocese worked with Joseph Esposito, a former commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management, to develop a safe reopening plan for all churches.
The church restrictions came a day after Cuomo had a news conference ordering closures of public schools and Catholic and other nonpublic schools in certain ZIP codes that reportedly have double, or in some areas quadruple, the New York metro area’s average Covid-19 infection rate of 1.72 percent.
Massgoers wear masks during Mass and sit 6 feet apart, with a row roped off in between, and they stand 6 feet apart in the line to receive Communion.
Pastors have installed hand sanitizers at the entrances and have ensured churches are cleaned and sanitized after Masses, the diocese said. “A tremendous amount of time has been devoted, as well as resources and expense, to enforce these strict requirements to help ensure the safety of all.”
Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the archdiocese, issued a statement supporting the lawsuit and echoed what the Brooklyn Diocese stated about Catholic parishes cooperating with health officials and strictly following all safety protocols for their churches, schools and other facilities.
“Catholic parishes throughout the Archdiocese of New York—indeed, throughout the entire state—have been able to safely and successfully reopen for Mass and the sacraments, thanks to careful planning, strict adherence to safety guidelines, and the full cooperation of our clergy, parishioners and parish staffs,” Zwilling said Oct. 8.
“So it is unfair to arbitrarily close, even temporarily, churches which have been operating without a spike in coronavirus cases simply because other institutions have not yet been able to do so,” he added. “The Diocese of Brooklyn’s lawsuit seeks to defend their First Amendment right to continue to safely worship and operate their parishes, and we support the Diocese of Brooklyn in their effort.”
A joint call to action letter Oct. 6 by Michael J. Deegan, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, and Dr. Thomas Chadzutko, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn, in defense of the schools, was being sent to the Catholic school communities throughout the two school systems.
“Our principals, teachers and staff have worked too hard and you, our families, have provided too much support, that we cannot allow government officials to derail the education of your children,” the letter said.
“If you agree, please let your elected officials know how you feel by taking a moment to call and email Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, your city council member, state assembly member and state senator, and tell them to support schools that are working and not to institute these draconian measures.”
The letter included phone numbers for Cuomo, (518) 474-8390 and de Blasio, (212) 788-3000.
Catholic News Service and Catholic New York contributed to this article.