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Diocese Of Brooklyn Takes Gov. Cuomo To Court Over Second Coronavirus Shutdown Order

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The Diocese of Brooklyn's lawsuit against Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reopen dozens of churches amid a second coronavirus shutdown headed to court Thursday.

Nicholas DiMarzio, the Bishop of Brooklyn, said he's pleased the case is moving forward and believes church should be considered essential, CBS2's John Dias reported.

One witness the court heard from was the former commissioner of New York City's office of emergency management Joe Esposito, CBS2's Ali Bauman reports. Esposito has been leading the Diocese's efforts in establishing safety protocols for churches during the pandemic.

If a judge rules in the church's favor, 28 churches in Brooklyn and Queens would be allowed to reopen. They were all forced to close or significantly limit capacity when the governor ordered non-essential businesses to close and schools to go remote in COVID-19 hot zones.

"If they were willing to follow the rules, why not follow them now? Because this rule is not as harsh as the previous rules. Remember, the previous rule was total shutdown for churches and synagogues. This is not a total shutdown," Cuomo said.

Watch John Dias' report --

Signs outside Holy Name of Jesus Christ church in Park Slope remind parishioners to practice COVID compliance.

"You have to reward the people who are doing right," said Crown Heights resident Alem Clark, who said she often notices people following the rules.

Clark believes the dozens of churches are being penalized for the actions of others.

"I feel like if areas in Borough Park are not doing it, they should be closed down," Clark said.

"I think that the churches should be allowed to open that have followed every single protocol," Claire Notwicz, of Bensonhurst, said.

Inside Saint Athanasius in Bensonhurst, every other pew is blocked off with tape to encourage social distancing.

That's one of several measures the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn says all of its churches have taken to safely operate during the pandemic.


While the churches in the case fall under New York's red and orange zone restrictions, the lawsuits are filed on the ground of religious freedom.

DiMarzio said they've been operating at 25% capacity safely for months.

"Going to church should absolutely be considered essential. We should not be grouped with non-essential services like theaters and recreational facilities," the statement said.

Not everyone agrees with the Diocese's argument.

"It's their privilege to sue the city, but it's for the benefit of everybody in the city," one person told CBS2.

"Religion is very important and spiritual life is very important, but health goes first," another person said.

"I think everyone should have to live under the same rules," said Zack Smith of Windsor Terrace.

"It's just the way we live now... If cases are rising, we need to do what we have to do," said Joe Handelsman of South Park Slope.

MORE: Cuomo Says He Will Withhold Funding From Local Governments That Don't Enforce In Areas With COVID-19 Micro-Clusters

Earlier in the week, the Bishop of Brooklyn wrote an opinion article in the New York Post called "We Shouldn't Have To Sue Gov. Cuomo To Reopen Our Churches."

"The restrictions defy logic," he wrote.

While last week a federal judge denied the Diocese's request for a temporary restraining order against the governor's edict, the judge encourage the Diocese to apply for Thursday's preliminary injunction, writing in part, "the Governor of New York made remarkably clear that this Order was intended to target a different set of religious institutions" and that the Diocese "appears to have been swept up in that effort despite having been mostly spared, so far at least, from the problem at hand."

The lawsuit was expedited after Cuomo on Wednesday threatened to withhold state funding from establishments that violate the lockdown orders.

"I think the courts will understand this is our health care leadership saying there's a clear and present danger. It must be addressed aggressively," Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Cuomo's ultimatum comes after two yeshivas in Borough Park ignored requirements to close their doors.

"... nothing else I have done has motivated them. Maybe money works," Cuomo said.

RELATED STORY: Some Groups, Residents Say Gov. Cuomo Has Taken Criticism Of Orthodox Jewish COVID-19 Noncompliance Too Far

The governor has lost patience with community noncompliance and a lack of enforcement by New York City.

"They don't want to do enforcement. Why? Because it's politically sensitive, and let's be frank and candid, the community we're talking about today is a politically powerful community. You know it and I know it," Cuomo said Wednesday.

Americans Against Anti-Semitism marched to Cuomo's office Thursday to show off a letter they wrote to the White House asking for the Department of Justice to investigate Cuomo's actions against the Jewish community.

A spokesperson for Cuomo's office said interpreting the governor's comments as anti-Semitic is willfully twisting his words.

The governor's actions include slashing funds for New York City, Orange County, Rockland County, and other localities that aren't serious about enforcement.

The state sent letters to schools in red zones saying they must close or lose state aid. Schools that violated the order were notified the money will be withheld.

Three shuls in Rockland County are suing Cuomo, too.

"Public worship is not a nonessential activity. It is an activity protected by the United States Constitution," said attorney Ron Coleman.

Former assemblyman Dov Hikind accused the governor of betraying the state's Orthodox community.

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