Three Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn have joined forces with two Catholic priests to file a lawsuit against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, accusing them of employing a "blatant double standard" in barring religious services to go ahead even as protestors are allowed to congregate in the city.
The three Jewish congregants, Elchanan Perr, Daniel Schonborn and Mayer Mayerfeld, along with the two priests, Steven Soos and Nicholas Stamos, filed the suit in the Northern District of New York on June 10 following large-scale protests by Black Lives Matter supporters.
The claimants were represented by the Thomas More Society, and Attorney-General Letitia James also appears on the suit, charged alongside Cuomo and de Blasio with violating the plaintiffs’ rights to free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, assembly and expressive association, and due process, all under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution.
De Blasio has come under particular criticism by the group, with numerous violations detailing acts of alleged discrimination by the mayor. They point out that on June 4, de Blasio himself didn't adhere to social distancing and the 10-person limit on gatherings when he attended a mass political rally at New York City's Cadman Plaza. He also failed to wear a face mask at the event.
Days later in Williamsburg, hassidic children were evicted from a park by a police officer for violating the 10-person limit.
The Jewish community also came under attack from de Blasio in April when he threatened the community with arrest and prosecution following the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz, which was disbanded by police in Williamsburg.
“My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed,” de Blasio tweeted. "I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period."
He later doubled down on his threat, issuing a statement of regret for the tone of his tweet, but insisting that it constituted "tough love."
“These orders, both the emergency stay-home and reopening plan declarations, clearly discriminate against houses of worship," Christopher Ferrara, Thomas More Society special counsel, said in a statement on the society's website. "They are illegally content-based, elaborate, arbitrary and pseudo-scientific."
Alleging that the application of the "so-called science" was irrational, Ferrara added: “Why is a large worship gathering deemed more dangerous than a mass protest, full of shouting, arm-waving people in close proximity to one another?”
The complaint accuses Cuomo, de Blasio and James of "an unprecedented abuse of power" and of exploiting the coronavirus pandemic "to create, over the past three months, a veritable dictatorship by means of a complex web of defendant Cuomo’s executive orders."
In particular, the application of executive orders to limit religious worship has been highlighted in the complaint, given that Cuomo's orders explicitly forbid “congregate services within houses of worship” and “congregations of groups for religious service or ceremony,” singling out religion for particular regulation under social distancing measures.
Furthermore, the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people has all but ended communal religious worship, reducing religious services to "minuscule congregations," the complaint adds.
Meanwhile, although New York's theaters are supposed to remain closed, venues have been opening their doors to protestors for rest, use of Wi-Fi, use of the bathrooms and provision of food and water – while preventing police from accessing the premises. None of these actions have resulted in objection or interference from Cuomo or de Blasio.
“It is time to end New York’s experiment in absolute monarchy,” said Ferrara. “We are asking the court to put an end to these unconstitutional executive orders and their prejudicial enforcement.”