In New York, where the COVID curve has un-flatted in parts of the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently instituted new rules that limited in-person worship services to as few as 10 people (or 25% of capacity, whichever is lower) in the worst-hit places. Those areas, which represent nine different zip codes, saw a COVID test positivity rate of 5%, compared to 1% in other parts of the state.
With Jewish holidays coming up this weekend, and a very Orthodox Jewish community sitting in one of those worst-hit “red zones,” religious leaders argued that this was religious discrimination. Orthodox Jews protested the move for days this week and also filed a lawsuit seeking a restraining order against the governor’s restrictions. (Catholic schools were also included in that cluster, affected by the governor’s rules.)
Many protesters this week were seen not wearing masks and most were not social distancing.
On Friday, Cuomo said such restrictions were not unprecedented.
“We have always attacked clusters. This cluster happens to be predominantly the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn and Queens,” Cuomo said. “This is not the first time the state has taken this action.”
“How can we ignore the compelling state interest in protecting the health and life of all New Yorkers?” said Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto of Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
… The religious burdens caused by the restrictions were outweighed by the need to stop “the most significant health crisis in living memory,” she said.
The ruling doesn’t mean the lawsuit is over, only that the restrictions can proceed for now while the case moves through the system. It’s a temporary victory. It’s still important.
If the goal is to stop the spread of the virus, though, you have to target the areas where it’s spreading, even if it happens to overlap with an area where a certain religious minority happens to live. Their religious doesn’t give them the right to spread the virus to everyone else. More to the point here, Cuomo was clearly focused on containing the virus, not prohibiting Jewish people from worshiping. It’s irrelevant, and a coincidence, that the current COVID crisis is occurring around the same time as these Jewish holidays.
Cuomo correctly said in an interview that “This is not a matter of religious freedom.”
“We are rabbis and other Jewish religious leaders representing every movement of Judaism, who stand in support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio for using data-driven, geographically-based efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19,” the letter reads.
“Judaism and Jewish texts are filled with vociferous debates and disagreements, however nothing is more universally accepted and agreed upon than the need to protect and preserve human life and dignity.”
That’s the right response and the right attitude. We’re all in this together, and we need government officials to take serious actions to prevent the virus from spreading, even if it means limiting in-person church services or closing schools. This isn’t about our “freedom” as Americans. Unless people make these sacrifices — and the pandemic is proof that too many people haven’t — the virus won’t go away.
Just because some religious people are too ignorant to understand how the virus works — or maybe they just don’t care — doesn’t mean the rest of us should have to suffer because of their negligence. Plenty of churches have found ways to worship as a group virtually during the pandemic. If that’s not an option for Hasidic Jews, they can worship as a family. But to create super-spreader events where the virus can travel is utterly irresponsible.
It’s a good thing the governor won this battle. But it’s far from over.
(Thanks to Richard for the link)