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Cuomo blinks in religious liberty stare down

Jewish students head back to school after lockdown eased

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Associated Press/Photo by Frank Franklin II (file)

Cuomo blinks in religious liberty stare down

Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits celebrated last week when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he would loosen lockdown restrictions that had closed their daughters’ Orthodox Jewish school. The girls returned to classes this week in the Queens neighborhood of Far Rockaway.

The lockdowns—and their eventual reversal—highlighted how New York’s coronavirus response at times targeted specific religious communities. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, the governor and Mayor de Blasio have been scapegoating the Orthodox Jewish community for the spread of the virus,” said Becket counsel Joe Davis, who helped represent the Lebovitses.

Earlier this month, Cuomo ordered schools in certain Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods to close indefinitely, including Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam, where the Leibovitses’ daughters attend. At the school, teachers instruct Jewish girls in the faith through communal prayer, the study of sacred texts, and group projects. Initially closed when the pandemic hit, the school reopened on Sept. 8 after meeting stringent state health guidelines. But Cuomo’s order shuttered it again a month later.

Becket and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty filed a lawsuit challenging the controversial policy on Oct. 16. The Lebovitses asked the court to stop New York from enforcing the restrictions, arguing they violated their right to freely exercise their religion by unfairly singling out their neighborhood. They pointed out Cuomo acknowledged during an Oct. 6 phone call with Jewish leaders that there had been very little coronavirus transmission in the schools but said “the fear is too high to do anything” else.

“We have a couple of unique clusters, frankly, which are more religious organizations, and that’s what we’re targeting,” Cuomo said during an Oct. 9 CNN interview.

Just hours after a federal judge ordered him to explain the rationale for designating predominately Jewish ZIP codes as “hot spots,” Cuomo on Wednesday reversed the policy during a regular news briefing on New York microclusters. He cited a downward trend in the number of reported coronavirus cases.

But he refused to acknowledge any discrimination. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who threatened to shut down churches and synagogues near the beginning of the pandemic in late March, apologized to Jewish leaders on Wednesday at a news conference. He said “dialogue would have been much better” than how he handled renewed restrictions. But when a reporter on Wednesday asked Cuomo at a public briefing if he would also apologize, he declined, the New York Post reported.

The Lebovits family is not the only one challenging Cuomo’s treatment of the Orthodox Jewish community. Synagogues in the targeted area sued the governor on Oct. 8. They filed an appeal last week after a federal judge declined to bar enforcement of Cuomo’s policy.

The Lebovitses appreciate the reprieve but continue to seek a permanent ruling to protect them from the governor’s policy. “We are grateful the lockdown order has been loosened and our children can get back to praying and learning together with their classmates,” Chana Lebovits said. “The governor should never have targeted the Jewish community with his lockdown or his statements.”

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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