In October, the state of New York ordered a new round of severe COVID-19 restrictions that infringe on the right to the free exercise of religion. As the shepherd of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens, I was left with no other option than to file a lawsuit against the state of New York and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Despite what the U.S. Constitution says, New Yorkers in the Diocese of Brooklyn were being denied their right to the free exercise of religion. This lawsuit has now made its way to the United States Supreme Court. We await a decision on whether the highest court in the land will grant an emergency injunction to prevent the governor from enforcing those restrictions while our case proceeds in the lower courts.
At issue is the fact that the state does not consider church an essential service. But the practice of one’s faith, and a person’s relationship with God, is without a doubt an essential part of life. And I would argue that a person’s faith is much more critical than other services the state of New York has classified as essential during this pandemic. Churches have been lumped in with theaters, sports, and recreational facilities. New York’s failure to recognize the need and importance of the Mass is plain wrong (and this failure is not unique to the Empire State). Liquor stores are considered “essential” but attending Mass is not. This defies logic.
Gov. Cuomo instituted red and orange zones in Brooklyn and Queens in October, reducing capacity at churches within these zones to either 10 or 25 people. The imposed limitations, depending on the zone classification, essentially forced us to shut our churches in those areas, despite the successful implementation of a reopening plan that has allowed for safe worship since we reopened our churches in July. New York has also failed to consider the size of our churches, many of which can hold 800 to 1000 people. To limit attendance to 10 or 25 socially distant, mask-wearing people in these churches is ridiculous.
The spring 2020 shutdown of all of our churches during the height of the coronavirus pandemic was devastating to Catholics in this diocese. For thirteen weeks (including Holy Week and Easter), from mid-March until the weekend of July 4, our faithful were denied any opportunity to receive the Holy Eucharist, which would have nourished and strengthened them as they endured the pandemic.
During the shutdown, I established a working diocesan COVID-19 task force that analyzed each and every aspect of our Holy Mass and our church environment. Under the leadership of former New York City Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Esposito, this task force of experienced professionals developed a plan for the safe return to Mass and made sure our churches were ready to open when permitted to do so. The safety of our parishioners throughout Brooklyn and Queens has always been our top priority.
I am so proud of the work of all those involved in the COVID-19 task force, all our pastors and parish priests and staff, who have responsibly adhered to every guideline. Since our reopening in July, not one of our churches has had a coronavirus outbreak. Our churches are safe places, and our protocols are working.
As we continue to challenge these state capacity restrictions in court, we have repeatedly highlighted the unfairness of their broad-brush approach. We argue that the state needs to tailor their restrictions to different situations because of their effect on the sacred right to worship.
The coronavirus pandemic has taken hold of our lives for much of 2020 and has affected every single aspect of our society—including education, health, transportation, and business. Our religious communities have all been affected substantially. Nothing remains the same, and we anxiously await an approved and effective vaccine, as well as the proper and safe distribution of it, hopefully in early 2021.
The diocese concurs with the state that it has a duty to protect its citizens. At the same time, this obligation cannot be so extreme that it infringes on people’s right to practice their religion. In the face of many lives lost, much sickness, stress, and challenge, our church doors should be open now more than ever. People are turning to God to pray for loved ones, for healthcare and essential workers, for themselves, and for a cure. People are yearning for a sense of normalcy and freedom from isolation, and the Mass has given that sense of hope to so many.
Despite what we have endured, the strong faith and commitment of our people is inspiring. They have complied with all guidelines and regulations so they can safely attend Mass and receive the Holy Eucharist. The Diocese of Brooklyn will continue to follow all the rules and enforce the safety protocols we have implemented as the coronavirus pandemic continues to plague us. We will also remain steadfast in our efforts to see that our right to worship is never taken away from us.
The Most Reverend Nicholas DiMarzio is the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
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