Churches react after court strikes down caps on faith-based services

Dec 31, 2020

A federal appeals court this week quashed New York’s capacity restrictions on faith services in areas with high rates of COVID-19, much to the praises of houses of worship.

The state’s regulations, part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s microcluster strategy, apply to faith-based services in designated “red” and “orange” zones, like in Erie County. In red zones, the state restricts houses of worship to the lesser of 25% maximum capacity or 10 people. In orange zones, it is 33% capacity or 25 people. That compares to 50% capacity in "yellow" zones.

The court’s decision to strike down these limits came a month after the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked New York from enforcing those caps. The religious groups that brought the case—the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America—said that the rules violate the First Amendment and discriminate against them.

Fr. Scott Kubinski is the pastor of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, a Roman Catholic parish in Elmira. The church has followed the orange zone rules since they went into effect.

“I just felt we needed to do our part to remain safe and, if these were the guidelines, we would adhere to them,” Kubinski said.

While he said he didn’t consider the restrictions discriminatory, they did pose challenges. With all the people it takes to operate a weekend Mass, only up to 19 parishioners could realistically attend. Kubinski said it was easier, albeit expensive, to implement live-streamed services.

But faith services, he stressed, are essential for so many isolated and struggling this year—something he said the government often overlooks.

“Faith practice is an essential good for people,” Kubinski added. “I think it’s needed to help us live full, whole lives.”

Kubinski said that after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the church’s bishop encouraged them to expand its attendance at Mass. Most Holy Name of Jesus now allows up to 120 people to sign up for each weekend Mass, with a list of precautions. Mask-wearing is mandatory; only every other pew may be used and only by a single household; no singing or socializing is allowed.

While their increased capacity kept them under one-third of their normal capacity, it is far above the previous 25-person limit. Kubinski said that, to his knowledge, spread of the virus in Elmira has not been linked to the church at any time.

In its ruling Monday, the three-judge panel from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan wrote that the capacity limits imposed greater restrictions on religious activities than on secular ones. Back in November, the Supreme Court similarly found that the regulations on religious organizations did not apply to retail stores in the same neighborhoods.