Federal judge denies Brooklyn Diocese's request to block NY restrictions in COVID hotspots

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- A federal judge has denied the Diocese of Brooklyn’s attempt at blocking Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order limiting the capacity at houses of worship in COVID cluster areas.

Under the order imposed in early October, houses of worship in so-called “red zone” areas are limited to a 10-person maximum indoors.

The federal judge said the state is right by limiting the capacity in houses of worship to prevent avoidable deaths from the pandemic.

The judge’s ruling doesn’t end the diocese’s suit, but it denies the request for a temporary injunction.

U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis said in the order Friday that even though the rules harm religious groups, it is not in the public interest to block them if they are helping prevent a wave of new infections.

“In fact, if the court issues an injunction and the state is correct about the acuteness of the threat currently posed by hotspot neighborhoods, the result could be avoidable death on a massive scale like New Yorkers experienced in the spring,” Garaufis wrote.

The Brooklyn diocese had argued that its congregations hadn’t seen a big increase coronavirus cases, and that it had implemented successful social-distancing measures for religious services, including placing communion wafers in congregants’ hands rather than on their tongues.

Similar lawsuits have been filed by Jewish groups.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio reacted in a statement: "The Brooklyn Diocese is extremely disappointed by the ruling, as we believe we presented a strong case in support of our right to worship. It is a shame our parishioners in the red zones cannot return to Mass when the judge acknowledged we have done everything right.”

DiMarzio continued: "It is unfortunate the court has ruled against us, and we will abide by these restrictions, the churches in the red zones are closed until further noticed. The Mass attendance limits of 10 people are extremely difficult to implement because we never want to turn away worshippers. It is unfortunate that our inalienable constitutional right to worship is still impeded despite the efforts we have made."

In their filings, state lawyers said that within the state’s “red zones,” just under 5% of all people who took a COVID-19 test were testing positive, down from nearly 8% in late September. They said that shows the restrictions are working, but said things had not improved enough to lift restrictions.

The Cuomo administration hasn’t said exactly when the restrictions might be lifted, but the initial plan was to have them in place for at least two weeks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.