Faith in the Not So Hot Zone: Second Circuit Denies Synagogues and Churches Relief from New York’s Pandemic Measures

Agudath Israel of America, et al. v. Cuomo, No. 20-3572; Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, No. 20-3590 (2nd. Cir.)  Stay pending appeal denied on November 9, 2020.

New York has restricted gatherings by size according to perceived geographic intensity of COVID-19 infections.  Religious groups have appealed a federal district court’s denial of injunctive relief that would preclude enforcement of New York’s order.  

Noting first that the Jewish petitioners failed to request a stay pending appeal in the federal district court, the Second Circuit then denied relief from operation of the pandemic measures pending appeal to Jews and Catholics alike

The Second Circuit commenced by stating that strict scrutiny does not apply to neutral and generally applicable laws.  The religious groups have been unable to establish that the pandemic restrictions are not neutral.  The restrictions on gatherings affect religion and secular groups similarly, and are premised on the prevalence of infection.  

The Supreme Court recently denied similar relief, the Second Circuit judges found, and the dissent in the appeal in this case has not persuaded the deciding justices that the standard of “reasonableness” at the time of the issuance of the pandemic orders must be viewed in light of changed circumstances. 

Dissenting Judge Park offered that the deciding judges have ruled based on a skewed perception of the zones.  The zone restrictions are not neutral.  Within zones only religious institutions remain restricted while “essential” operations are not.  

The measures not only specifically single out religious entities for special treatment but they also impose burdens that are substantially heavier than those imposed on other entities, in violation of the Free Exercise Clause.

The overtly different treatment of religious groups with an unmistakably disparate impact on these groups cannot be other than intentional. This is supported by the governor’s threat to close Orthodox Jewish institutions should they refuse to comply.

The dissent rejected the Governor’s argument that only rational basis review is needed as in the Governor’s view religious groups are treated more rather than less favorably than others,

The Governor’s position concedes non-neutrality, the dissenting judge observed. 

In the dissent’s view, the characterization of businesses as ‘essential’ and religious entities as ‘inessential’ facially targets religion.  Strict scrutiny is required as more than incidental burdens are evident.

The recent Supreme Court summary decision concerning California’s pandemic measures is not precedent, the dissent stated, because such orders are precedentail only where decided issues are identical.  The standards for relief in the Second Circuit and the temporal considerations are significantly different. 

New York has maintained the same restrictions since the inception of the pandemic notwithstanding marked reduction of disease.  

Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.s. 11 (19050 lacks the significance the Governor wishes it had, as Jacodbson was decided before the First Amendment was incorporated against the states and did not concern free exercise.   

Just as Jacobson does not support deference to indefinite exercise of emergency powers, but rather demands consideration of constitutional constraints, the facts of this case show that the absolute limits imposed on religious gatherings are not narrowly tailored.

The zone restrictions are the same — ten persons — for churches that can hold one thousand persons and those that can hold forty persons and the additional identified risks of singing or chanting make assumptions about religious gatherings not applicable to others.

The court has issued its briefing schedule for the merits with hearing to be scheduled as early as December 14, 2020. 

Agudath Isr. of Am. v. Cuomo (2nd Cir. 2020)

He Could Have Been a Contender: Attorney Challenges Delaware Constitutional Requirement that Courts Maintain Balance Between Two Major Political Parties


Carney v. Adams, No. 19-309 (S. Ct.)  Oral argument set for Monday, October 5, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.


The Supreme Court’s new term opens tomorrow, October 5, with oral argument concerning a Delaware attorney’s challenge to state constitutional requirements that judicial appointments for several courts be made with party affiliations in mind, such that courts are balanced, or if not balanced, such that only a ‘bare majority’ of one party holds power.

James Adams wishes to become a judge in Delaware but as an independent is frozen out because of the state’s two-party balancing requirements.   

The state asserts that as sovereign its constitution may provide for equitable apportionment among parties in judicial appointments without being overridden by the federal government.  The state also asserts that the Supreme Court’s decisions in anti-patronage disputes permit the course adopted by Delaware for judges are policy makers whose work necessitates party loyalty, unlike employees who do not make policy and who ought not fear termination because of any political party affiliation.  

The state argues that as a preliminary matter Adams cannot sue because he has not been injured by the Constitutional provisions.  He has not actively sought appointment and he cannot inflict injury upon himself in order to create an interest in challenging the judicial appointment provisions.  

Adams believes that he need not seek appointment with full knowledge that he would be rejected so that he can challenge Delaware’s constitution.  Delaware’s position that sovereignty precludes a challenge to its constitution must fail, Adams argues, because the constitution is depriving him of associational rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.   Moreover, there is little merit to the ‘policy maker’ argument, as the very thing that the anti-patronage cases rejected — loss of employment because of party affiliation — does not depend on whether an employee is high level or low level, but on whether party affiliation caused the harm in issue, his failure to be able to become a judge because he is not a partisan.

Delaware takes pride in having enshrined partisan balancing in its constitution.  Preeminent in the law of corporations, Delaware is invested in establishing and maintaining fairness in judicial appointments so that the credibility and reliability of its judiciary will be perceived to be sound.  Delaware argues that the state constitution serves this end and must be permitted to remain as it is.  

Adams insists that the preclusion from a coveted appointment is hardly the “light burden” on free speech that the state contends that it is, but rather creates an unconstitutional categorical exclusion of independent or third party judicial candidates.. 

Carney v. Adams No. 19-309 Brief of Petitioner John C. Carney, Governor of Delaware

Carney v. Adams, No. 19-309 Brief of Respondent James R. Adams

Carney v. Adams, No. 19-309 Reply Brief of Petitioner John C. Carney, Governor of Delaware



Note regarding oral argument.. As restrictions related to the COVID-19 virus remain in effect, and as the Supreme Court remains closed, argument will be conducted telephonically. Although modified to address public health concerns, guarantees of access to the courts have not been abandoned. Oral arguments will be available by livestream audio through C-Span: https://www.c-span.org/video/?469266-1/carney-v-adams-oral-argument