[guest post by JVW]
On what else but COVID policy, naturally:
New York governor Andrew Cuomo has asked a federal court to block the state’s own restrictions on capacity at houses of worship in areas with high rates of coronavirus spread.
Cuomo issued an executive order in October ordering houses of worship to accept no more than ten people in so-called coronavirus “red” zones,” while 25 worshippers could be allowed in “orange” zones. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in November that those restrictions were unconstitutional, in a case brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel, an umbrella organization of Orthodox Jewish groups.
We discussed the Court’s ruling back in November. The Court sent the case back to a lower district court, and yesterday the U.S. District Court for New York’s Eastern District agreed with the governor’s request to strike down his order.
“Defendant [Cuomo] has agreed to an injunction against enforcement of the…capacity limits in red and orange zones,” Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto wrote in the Monday injunction. “Subsequently, Defendant’s counsel has represented in status conferences that before the end of February 2021,” the executive order’s restrictions “will be amended to remove houses of worship.”
Matsumoto’s ruling came after lawyers for the governor asked to cancel a hearing on the case, in a series of filings first reported by The New York Times. Aides to the governor told the Times that the state did not support an injunction against Cuomo’s executive order, but also did not oppose the injunction.
So I know all of the intelligent people on this blog are scratching their heads wondering why Governor Andrew Cuomo, ersatz hero of the pandemic response among Democrats everywhere, didn’t simply modify his executive order to reflect the more generous guardrails suggested by the judiciary. Could it be that the governor is not at all interested in allowing members of his administration to testify as to how pandemic decisions are being made in Albany?
One result of allowing the District Court to block the executive order was to prevent New York State health commissioner Howard Zucker from appearing for testimony at a previously-scheduled hearing in the case. Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at religious-liberty advocacy group Becket, alleged that the decision to drop the case was made to prevent Zucker from testifying in court.
“The Governor is desperately trying to avoid testimony showing that his orders shutting down synagogues and churches weren’t based on public health, but on politics,” Rassbach said in a statement.
Now it could conceivably be that the Cuomo Administration believes that church services are super-spreader events waiting to happen, especially as we gear up for the Passover and Easter seasons, and he wants it to be known that he was forced to accede to the judiciary so that if there is a COVID flare-up which can be traced back to the churches he can deliver the “I told you so” moment while once again casting himself as the all-seeing seer to guide us through these troubled times. But given his dismal track record and his callous politicization of the disease — including suggesting that a coronavirus vaccine developed and approved during the Trump Administration might be unsound and dangerous — I’m inclined to believe this is yet more of the authoritarian and micromanaging governor’s penchant for circling the wagons to control the narrative.