Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization representing Orthodox Jews in North America, filed a lawsuit earlier this month in federal court asking for a temporary restraining order to bar the State of New York from enforcing its limits on house of worship attendance in certain areas of the state. The limits, announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this month, would cap worship attendance to ten individuals in so-called “red zones,” which are primarily located in large Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.
The lawsuit says the limits would disrupt the religious observance of tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews, “depriving them of their religious worship and holiday observance,” and argues that the Governor’s Executive Order contains restrictions that unconstitutionally discriminate against religious practice while simultaneously permitting comparable secular conduct. The filing asks the court for a temporary restraining order blocking the state government from enforcing the new limits.
RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team has filed a friend of the court brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit supporting Agudath Israel’s lawsuit. The Muslim Public Affairs Committee and religious freedom attorney Asma Uddin also joined the brief. RFI’s brief states:
Since ancient times, peoples around the world have symbolically vested the perceived wrongdoings of their community onto “scapegoats,” who are sacrificed in the hope that those wrongdoings will be expiated, and the hard times will pass. Too often, religious minorities have served as scapegoats in times of sickness, war, and fear—from Jews during the Black Death, to Jehovah’s Witnesses During WWII, to Muslims after 9/11. Latest in a long and troubling line of such incidents are the statements and policies of Governor Cuomo blaming Orthodox Jewish communities for the spread of COVID-19 and specifically targeting them for closures and restrictions, all despite a dearth of evidence.
Several other organizations, including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, also submitted briefs in support of the lawsuit. Agudath Israel called the filing of these briefs “heartening news.” Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, said in a statement:
We thank all of the organizations and individuals who worked on these briefs in support of our case in the Second Circuit. Public health and religious worship are not mutually exclusive – we should be able to worship in ways which will be safe for everyone while respecting religious rights. The widespread support on behalf of religious liberty indicated by these briefs is gratifying and deeply appreciated.
Last week, RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team filed another friend of the court brief in a New York federal district court in support of lawsuit by Jewish students whose school has been disrupted by Governor Cuomo’s shutdown plan. And Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, Director of RFI’s North America Action Team, issued an open letter to Governor Cuomo urging him “to use language in public that has the effect of promoting public order and harmony rather than hostility and scapegoating” and “to forgo government actions targeting Jewish neighborhoods and institutions.”