Religious freedom came out a winner last week in two important pandemic-related court rulings in favor of New York’s Catholic parishes and schools.
It’s about time.
The constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion so often seems an afterthought—if it’s thought of at all—to legislators at the state and federal levels in fashioning the laws and policies that govern us.
That’s why we heartily welcome the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 Thanksgiving-eve ruling that lifted Gov. Cuomo’s restrictions on congregation size at houses of worship.
Just two days earlier, a state judge on Staten Island ruled in favor of archdiocesan Catholic schools and parents seeking the same Covid-19 testing procedures for their students as those provided in public schools.
In the Supreme Court case, the Brooklyn Diocese and two Orthodox Jewish synagogues challenged Cuomo’s executive order as an “overreach” in capping attendance at worship services to 10 or 25 people in zones designated as red or orange based on their Covid-19 infection rate.
The governor’s order failed to take account of the large size of many churches in those zones, some of which could safely accommodate hundreds of people, and it was especially unwarranted when other types of businesses were permitted to open as usual.
The justices in the majority agreed, saying in an unsigned opinion that the governor’s order did not appear neutral and seemed to single out “houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”
That’s our interpretation as well. We’re also saddened that the executive order failed to recognize the strict safety protocols that Catholic churches throughout the state have successfully implemented to keep parishioners and clergy safe in the pandemic.
Cardinal Dolan, congratulating Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio on the court victory, said, “While we have been and will continue to adhere to all safety protocols to protect our communities, it is also important to protect that fundamental constitutional right, religious liberty.”
We also congratulate the Brooklyn Diocese, and we extend congratulations as well to our own archdiocesan Education Department for its success in winning the case on Staten Island.
The archdiocesan schools and a group of parents challenged a policy of the New York City Department of Education that brushed aside a requirement in state law to provide the same Covid-19 testing services to non-public school students as it does to students in public schools.
While the city’s Education Department did send testing kits to Catholic schools, it did not provide testing staff or pay for a lab to process the tests, nor did it create the reports that schools must submit to the state.
“This is not parity under the law,” said archdiocesan Schools Superintendent Michael Deegan, whose determined pursuit of the issue won a quick decision Nov. 23 from state Supreme Court Justice Wayne Ozzi.
Since Sept. 9, archdiocesan Catholic schools have provided safe, in-person learning as they follow health and safety protocols outlined by federal, state and local health officials and the Catholic Schools Reopening Plan.
Obtaining access to proper testing procedures for students will go a long way to ensuring continued success, especially now as the region experiences a troubling rise in cases.
As always, we pray that the pandemic that has caused so much pain and suffering around the world will be soon be over, and for the patience and courage to stay the course and remain safe through the upcoming Christmas season.