Many of the legal challenges to the restrictions on large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic have been brought by fundamentalist Christian churches and ministries. A recent challenge in New York, though, came from Orthodox Jews – but the result was the same: There can be no special treatment for religious groups.
Like many other states, New York is slowly reopening. But overnight summer camps have not been allowed to open, due to worries that they could become vectors for the spread of coronavirus.
New York’s order bars all overnight camps, not just religious ones. Chris Liberati-Conant, an assistant attorney general, explained the rationale like this: “That determination was rationally made on the basis that overnight camps involve children and adults sleeping and eating in close proximity in an enclosed space for an extended period of time, greatly increasing the risk of spread of the virus.”
Nevertheless, the Association of Jewish Camp Operators, which represents 75 Orthodox camps around the state, sued. The group argued in part that refusing to allow the camps to open would hamper the religious freedom rights of Jewish families.
U.S. District Judge Glenn Suddaby was not persuaded. Denying a request for an emergency injunction to open the sleepaway camps, Suddaby wrote that he had to take into account “the extenuating circumstances of the COVID-19 virus and its impact throughout the world.”
Observed Suddaby, “Although the State of New York has made progress in limiting the transmission of the virus in recent weeks, the recent resurgence of positive COVID-19 cases in several states raises concerns and is a painful reminder that the fight is far from over.”
The judge got it exactly right. Despite what President Donald Trump may believe, the virus is showing no signs of miraculously disappearing. In fact, several states that rushed to reopen are now pulling back as cases skyrocket. In some regions, religious services have been identified as sources of infection.
We’re not through this pandemic yet – far from it. To get through it, we need to work together and look out for one another’s health and well-being. For the time being, that includes respecting public health orders to curb large gatherings, religious and secular alike.
P.S. Americans United’s Legal Department continues to track these cases and intervene in many of them with important legal briefs, making it clear that religious communities should not receive special treatment that could threaten other people’s lives during the pandemic. We’d love to have your support.