After a federal judge sided with Gov. Andrew Cuomo in its court fight against the state’s latest restrictions on houses of worship, the Diocese of Brooklyn “is extremely disappointed” and considering its “appellate options,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in a statement.
“We believe we presented a strong case in support of our right to worship,” he said in an Oct. 16 statement. “It is a shame our parishioners in the red zones cannot return to Mass when the judge acknowledged we have done everything right.”
“There is nothing more important than the safety of our parishioners. That is why we have worked diligently to implement strict Covid-19 safety rules that go above and beyond state requirements,” Bishop DiMarzio said.
The diocese will continue to require masks to be worn “in order to participate in all our services,” he said. “We will continue to voluntarily limit capacity in all buildings to 25 percent occupancy, and we will abide by social distancing guidelines as required.”
He added: “The proof of our compliance is the fact that we have not had any Covid outbreaks or significant cases in either our churches or schools. We continue to evaluate our procedures to build upon the safety we have so far achieved.”
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 identified as “hot zones.” He said the state has created three zones—red, orange and yellow—each with different restrictions, including on the size of congregations.
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.
Also, four Catholic schools in the diocese have been ordered closed. They are among the public and nonpublic schools in hot zones closed by Cuomo.
On Oct. 8, the Diocese of Brooklyn filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against the State of New York, charging that Cuomo’s new executive order reducing church capacity violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. It sought a temporary stop on Cuomo’s new orders while the suit proceeded.
On Oct. 10, Judge Eric Komitee denied the motion for a temporary stop on Cuomo’s restrictions, saying the government “is afforded wide latitude in managing the spread of deadly diseases under the Supreme Court’s precedent.”
However, he said the Brooklyn Diocese could apply to Senior Judge Nicholas Garaufis on the court “for a preliminary injunction, as the record may be developed more fully.”
In his order Oct. 16, Garaufis ruled against the diocese, saying that if the court issued an injunction “and the state is correct about the acuteness of the threat currently posed by hot spot neighborhoods, the result could be avoidable death on a massive scale like New Yorkers experienced in the spring.”
AP reported the judge said he was not downplaying the “the seriousness of that constitutional harm” at the heart of the diocese’s argument the new pandemic restrictions infringed on worshippers’ religious freedom, and said it was conceivable the diocese could end up ultimately winning the case.
Cardinal Dolan, in his blog on Oct. 14, said, “Yes, our elected officials have a responsibility to respond to crisis situations, and we expect them to work to preserve the common good, as they have. If any group, organization, or institution is experiencing a rise in cases, or is not following proper safety protocols, it should close down until the situation is rectified.
“I can assure you that if a parish in the archdiocese was experiencing a spike, we wouldn’t need to be told to close; it would happen automatically.
“Is it right, however, for a group, organization, or institution, which is operating safely and has not seen any spike in cases, to be closed down simply because some other group, a half-mile away, is having problems?
“This is not the time for a ‘broad-brush’ approach, to sweep up everyone within a zip code. We’ve learned some valuable lessons, and have proven that our churches—as well as our schools, by the way—can operate safely and effectively.”
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 sent to the Catholic school communities throughout the two school systems.
Catholic News Service and Catholic New York contributed to this article.