NEW YORK (AP) – The longtime head of the Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn said on Friday that a Supreme Court ruling banning New York City from applying certain restrictions on religious services in areas hard hit by the coronavirus is a “good decision” which guarantees constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion.
The high court on Wednesday night sided with the Diocese of Brooklyn and other New York State religious organizations in temporarily banning New York from enforcing the restrictions against the groups. In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court said the restrictions “distinguish places of worship for particularly harsh treatment.” The groups said the state’s action had limited attendance by worshipers while other businesses in state-designated red zones could remain open without capacity limits.
“Right now we see this as a good decision, opening the understanding that the rights of the First Amendment are much more powerful than the right for someone to make purchases,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in an interview with the Associated Press.
DiMarzio also praised the words of Pope Francis, who, in a New York Times opinion piece published Thursday, criticized groups protesting the COVID-19 restrictions.
“I think the Pope’s words are wonderful. I don’t think we protested. I don’t think we ever denied the rules that were imposed on us, except that we had a difference of opinion on the number of people who could enter a building. It’s a big difference from posting the rules, as some congregations in Brooklyn and Queens have done, ”he told the AP. “They refused to take any precautions. It was not our case. We complied with everything we were asked to do and more.
“So I think that’s a big difference. I don’t think these words of the Pope really apply to us – it’s not an ideological question. It’s not anti-government, but it is looking at the First Amendment that people have the right to worship when possible.
New York City has become one of the first pandemic hotspots in the United States and the deadliest, with some of the city’s worst-hit areas concentrated in Brooklyn and Queens.
The Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America have churches and synagogues in areas of the two boroughs previously designated as red and orange areas. The state had capped the attendance of places of worship at 10 people in the red zones and 25 people in the orange zones. But these areas are now designated as yellow areas with less restrictive rules neither of the contested groups.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the court’s ruling was “not affecting practice” since the restrictions have already been removed. Cuomo also said the 5-4 decision, with new judge Amy Coney Barrett in the majority, was more about showing that the high court had changed color. But DiMarzio disagreed.
“(Cuomo) said the court changed their decision because it was politically convenient, it had nothing to do with it,” DiMarzio said. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly changed its position.”
Churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn were disproportionately affected and suffered many losses as the pandemic began. Reverend Jorge Ortiz-Garay, the pastor of St. Brigid’s Church in Brooklyn, was the first Catholic cleric in the United States to die of the coronavirus. In July, Saint Bartholomew’s Roman Catholic Church in Queens reported that at least 74 parishioners had died from COVID-19.
DiMarzio said Ortiz-Garay and Reverend Gioacchino Basile, a priest in the Archdiocese of Newark who ministered as pastor at Saint Gabriel Church in East Elmhurst, contracted the virus before menstruation was published on how to protect yourself against the pandemic.
“So you shouldn’t be watching this. Subsequently with the idea of Saint-Barthélemy, for example: that does not mean that they fell ill in church. It means that they got sick.
DiMarzio said he closed churches 10 days before a governor’s order and delayed opening for a week after that order was lifted in July. “So I think we were too careful…” he said. A spokesperson for the Diocese of Brooklyn said St. Barthelemy has not reported any new deaths since July, according to the church pastor.
18-point precautions in Brooklyn and Queens churches under diocese jurisdiction include regular sanitation of churches, requiring everyone to wear a mask throughout Mass, and keeping social distancing. Members of the clergy must also disinfect their hands before Mass, while the faithful cannot exchange peace or hold hands during the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and Holy Communion must be given in the hand. DiMarzio also said all Masses are broadcast live and in-person services have been capped at around 50% capacity.
“Look, we were the epicenter at the start of it all. Now we are the best. Worst of all, we’ve become the best because of the restrictions and the way people have followed them, ”he said, calling Cuomo’s rules too restrictive.
“Ten people for 25 people in churches that hold 500 and 1,000 people is the crux of the matter, because we have been designated as non-essential. So we were put with theaters and bowling alleys and other things that were recreational, and not with something that is essential as a church.
DiMarzio expects the Christmas season to be difficult but essential for believers after a long pandemic.
“People want to go to mass on Christmas. Children need to see and perform the Nativity, sometimes in different churches. So we are trying to prepare again safely, ”he said.
The Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.