Soos, et al. v. Cuomo, et al., No. 1:20-cv-651 (N.D.N.Y.) (GLS/DJS). (Order granting injunctive relief entered June 26, 2020).
Since the inception of public health concerns about potential harms should coronavirus (COVID-19) contamination be left unchecked, New York state and city officials have issued not less than seventeen orders dictating who may congregate where and for what purposes. Religious services fell among the most rigidly curtailed events.
Notwithstanding harms predicted to ensue from close unprotected contact with others, in June mass protests erupted across the United States.
Thousands gathered in New York without official objection. The governor counseled citizens to be “smart” by practicing social distancing. It has been reported that, apparently without further elaboration, the Mayor of New York opined that protesting racism presented a “different question” than did religious events, certain of which he had previously vociferously condemned.
On motion brought by religious leaders, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York declined to find the public health orders to be “neutral laws of general applicability” presumed to be constitutionally sound even if such laws incidentally burden religion.
The state and local course of conduct created de facto exemptions specifically inhibiting the free exercise of religion, the court found. The court could not identify a compelling interest which would justify any distinction that would permit public gatherings for some purposes but not for religious purposes. Where irreparable harm could be presumed to flow from the prevention of religious free exercise rights, the court enjoined enforcement of any indoor restrictions greater than those imposed on non-essential entities and any outdoor restrictions. In both indoor and outdoor settings, social distancing precautions are to be employed.