Brooklyn Bishop Hails Ruling, Saying Diocese in Line With Pope

Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio as Pope Francis, right, arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Sept. 24, 2015. (AP)
Luis Andres Henao
The Associated Press

New York – The longtime head of the Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn said that a Supreme Court ruling barring New York from enforcing certain restrictions on religious services in areas hit hard by the coronavirus is a “good decision” that guarantees constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion.

The high court sided with the Diocese of Brooklyn and other religious organizations in New York state in temporarily barring New York from enforcing the restrictions against the groups.

In an unsigned opinion the Supreme Court said the restrictions “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.” The groups said the state action had limited attendance for religious worshippers while other businesses in state-designated red zones could remain open without capacity limits.

“Right now, we see this as a good decision, opening up the understanding that First Amendment rights are much more powerful than the right for somebody to shop,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said last Friday in an interview with The Associated Press.

DiMarzio also praised the words of Pope Francis, who in a New York Times Opinion piece published on Thursday criticized groups protesting COVID-19 restrictions.

“I think the pope’s words are wonderful. I don’t think we protested. I don’t think we’ve ever negated the rules that were imposed upon us, except we had a difference of opinion on the number of people that could go into a building. That’s a big difference from flaunting the rules, as some congregations have done in Brooklyn and Queens,” he told the AP. “They refused to take precautions. That was not our case. We complied with everything we were asked to do and more.”

“So, I think that it’s a big difference. I don’t think those words of the pope really apply to us - this is not an ideological issue. It’s not anti-government, but it is looking at the First Amendment that people have a right to worship when it’s possible.”

New York City became an early U.S. hot spot of the pandemic 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 red and orange zones. The state had capped attendance at houses of worship at 10 people in red zones and 25 people for orange zones. But those areas are now designated as yellow zones with less restrictive rules neither group challenged.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that the court’s decision is “irrelevant from any practical impact” given that the restrictions have already been removed.

Cuomo also said that the 5-4 ruling, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the majority, is more about demonstrating that the high court has changed its stripes. But DiMarzio disagreed.

“(Cuomo) said the court changed its decision because it’s politically convenient, it has nothing to do with that” DiMarzio said. “The Supreme Court many times changes its position.”

Churches under the Diocese of Brooklyn were disproportionately hit and suffered many losses at the onset of the pandemic.

The Rev. Jorge Ortiz-Garay, the pastor of St. Brigid Church in Brooklyn, was the first Catholic cleric in the U.S to die from the coronavirus. By July, Saint Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Queens, reported that at least 74 parishioners had died from COVID-19.

DiMarzio said that Ortiz-Garay and the Rev. Gioacchino Basile, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark who was ministering as pastor of Saint Gabriel Church in East Elmhurst, contracted the virus before rules had been issued on how to protect against the pandemic.

“So, you shouldn’t be looking at that. Subsequently with the idea of St. Bartholomew, for example: It doesn’t mean they got sick in church. It means they got sick,” DiMarzio said.

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