Diocese loses COVID red zone lawsuit

Our Lady of the Angelus  Church, in a COVID-19 red zone in Rego Park, can legally only host 10 people for Mass in a building that holds 1,200.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens has lost its legal battle to reopen churches in areas designated as red zones after a recent increase on positive tests for the COVID-19 virus.

The diocese, in a case before U.S. District Court Judge Nichols Garaufis, also sought to increase the maximum capacities on churches in red zones, which now is at 10 for buildings that in some cases can hold 500 to 1,000 or more.

“The Diocese of Brooklyn is extremely disappointed by today’s ruling, as we believe we presented a strong case in support of our right to worship,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in a statement issued Friday evening. “It is a shame our parishioners in the red zones cannot return to Mass when the judge acknowledged we have done everything right. We are now considering our appellate options.”

The Chronicle could not immediately obtain a copy of Garaufis’ ruling in the suit filed last week against Gov. Cuomo.

A coalition of Orthodox Jewish organizations, including Agudath Israel of Kew Gardens Hills and Agudath Israel of Bayswater, have a separate suit against the governor before U.S. District Court Judge Kiyo Matsumoto.

Both the diocese and the Orthodox groups last week were denied temporary restraining orders to lift the capacity regulations for their houses of worship while the cases advanced through the court system.

Cuomo on Oct. 5 issued an executive order establishing color-coded zones in the city based on resurgences of positive tests for COVID-19, with red sectors having the harshest restrictions on schools, businesses and houses of worship.

One such zone exists in central Queens, including portions of Rego Park, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens and Kew Gardens Hills, and another in the Rockaways. Houses of worship in the zones are limited to 25 percent capacity or 10 people. Cuomo and city officials have pointed out that the red zones are centered around Orthodox Jewish communities.

 DiMarzio, in Friday’s statement, said they will pursue multiple options.

“There is nothing more important than the safety of our parishioners,” he said. “That is why we have worked diligently to implement strict COVID-19 safety rules that go above and beyond state requirements. We will continue to require masks to be worn in order to participate in all our services. We will continue to voluntarily limit capacity in all buildings to 25 percent occupancy, and we will abide by social distancing guidelines as required.  The proof of our compliance is the fact that we have not had any COVID outbreaks or significant cases in either our churches or schools. We continue to evaluate our procedures to build upon the safety we have so far achieved.”

DiMarzio said the diocese will abide by the ruling.

“It is unfortunate that our inalienable constitutional right to worship is still impeded despite the efforts we have made,” he said. “Despite this loss, we will continue to press our leaders for policies that consider the individual circumstances of houses of worship.”

The bishop also said the diocese will continue to advocate for places of worship to be classified as essential, “for there is nothing more necessary today than a community of believers, united in prayer, asking the Lord to end this pandemic.”

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