New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio have spent months targeting the Jewish community for gathering for worship services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, some families have become fed up with this behavior, which they consider religious discrimination.
Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits send their daughters to Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam, an Orthodox Jewish school for girls.
The Lebovitses filed a lawsuit against Cuomo for religious discrimination after the Democratic governor banned what he dubbed “hot spots,” which also happen to be places where Orthodox Jewish communities live, worship, and attend school.
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Becket, a legal aid organization that successfully defended the Little Sisters of the Poor at the Supreme Court, agreed to defend the Lebovits family against Cuomo’s targeted bigotry.
Becket made the case that Cuomo’s actions violated the Jews’ First Amendment rights, even amid pandemic lockdowns that curbed the civic liberties of most New York City residents:
[T]he state imposed new indefinite lockdowns on a select number of ZIP codes in New York that target the Orthodox Jewish community. The new restrictions have completely banned in-person instruction at [Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam] and other schools in Jewish neighborhoods in New York City—stripping parents of their right to direct the religious education and upbringing of their children.
The restrictions had come after months during which Cuomo and de Blasio, also a Democrat, scapegoated some Jews for the spread of COVID-19 while praising mass protests in the same areas.
Last week, a federal judge in New York found that the new restrictions specifically targeted the Orthodox Jewish community.
In a statement, Chana Lebovits explained why she chose to file a lawsuit:
We are devastated for our daughters and their classmates who are needlessly suffering because of the governor’s policy. “Governor Cuomo should not take away part of my daughters’ childhood because other people are afraid of Orthodox Jews.
Like many schools, Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam went to great lengths to prepare teachers and students for remote learning to comply with lockdowns, specifically those in New York City, which was hardest hit by COVID-19.
Still, the school’s administrators observed that remote learning was too difficult for teachers and students, and that in-person instruction remained the best option for their school.
“Teachers have reported alarming regression in reading skills, had to reteach prayers, and are requesting last year’s math textbooks,” Becket states.
When the school reopened, administrators followed safety protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as requiring masks and social distancing. In fact, no cases of COVID-19 infection have been reported at the school.
Fortunately for the Lebovitses and other students of Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam, Cuomo reconsidered.
The fact that things got as far as they did before the governor’s reversal, however, is disturbing.
Cuomo and de Blasio have targeted Jewish residents for months. The Daily Signal covered two separate incidents in which de Blasio blasted communities of faith for meeting while remaining mum about other groups that were meeting (and perhaps even rioting).
New York City officials’ handling of COVID-19 policy as it relates to the Jewish community poses at least two problems.
First, while COVID-19 cases were higher in New York City than anywhere else, and cause for alarm seemed reasonable at first, many months have passed. Schools and communities have adjusted to a new normal, including the Jewish residents who thrive there.
There is no reason schools should not be open everywhere, even in New York City. COVID-19 cases are rare in schools and in children.
Thus, there wasn’t even a good reason for de Blasio and Cuomo to close some schools in areas with a population that tends to congregate, and to reopen others.
Becket raised this point in its complaint against Cuomo:
The eight ZIP codes covered by the Commissioner’s September 28 order corresponded with predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. The order did not apply to six ZIP codes from Governor Cuomo’s list that had comparable or higher positivity rates and positive tests, but that did not correspond to predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.
Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested the boundaries between Americans’ civic liberties and health protocols for the greater good: Where do rights end and safety begin?
It’d be one thing if Cuomo and de Blasio were still mandating the entire state remain in lockdown–although there’s little scientific basis for that and they’d probably get significant pushback. But at least it would be consistent.
It simply isn’t working to target certain ZIP codes of New York City, where dense communities thrive together and also happen to be religious, and tell those residents they can’t worship or send their children to religious schools, citing a pandemic that began seven months ago.
The pandemic should not be used as a guise for religious bigotry and it looks like it still is, even when the science, the First Amendment, and time are all working against New York City officials.
Advocates of religious freedom warned de Blasio and Cuomo from the start that they should be careful with these inconsistent, arbitrary, targeted mandates on closures. They were not.
This lawsuit not only was timely but well founded, and it will communicate to the rest of the country that religious bigotry, even in a health crisis, will not stand.