On Friday, an Orthodox Jewish school took Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-N.Y.C.), and other public officials to court over blatant violations of the rights of religious freedom, free speech, due process, and more. Cuomo and de Blasio issued a coronavirus order shuttering the Jewish school just before three sequential Jewish holy days. Cuomo falsely blamed the Orthodox Jewish community for a surge in COVID-19 cases in New York and compared the Orthodox community to the KKK.
Cuomo’s October 6 order shuttered Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam (BYAM), an Orthodox Jewish girls’ school in Far Rockaway, New York City. In response, Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits, whose two daughters — one in third grade and one in kindergarten — attend BYAM, sued Cuomo, de Blasio, Attorney General Letitia James (D-N.Y.), Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, the City of New York, and the city’s health department.
“We are devastated for our daughters and their classmates who are needlessly suffering because of the Governor’s policy,” Chana Lebovits, the mother, said in a statement. “Governor Cuomo should not take away part of my daughters’ childhood because other people are afraid of Orthodox Jews. We hope the court will let our daughters go back to school so they can pray and learn together with their classmates.”
“There is no place for bigotry in the Big Apple,” Mark Rienzi, president and senior counsel at Becket, the religious liberty law firm representing the Lebovitses, said in a statement. “By Cuomo’s own admission, schools are not significant spreaders of COVID-19, and the new policy was not driven by science but was made from ‘fear’—fear of Orthodox Jews. Cuomo and de Blasio need to follow the science, follow the law, and stop scapegoating Jews. The Mayor and the Governor should be ashamed.”
Among other things, the lawsuit notes that Cuomo admitted that COVID-19 is “not being spread by schools” and that there has been “very little coronavirus activity” in schools. BYAM is particularly safe. The school follows rigorous protocols and has had zero known cases to date in the school. It also plans to test all students and staff before reopening on October 27.
In a call with Jewish leaders on October 6, Cuomo admitted that it does not make sense to close schools. “Your point is right: why close every school? Why don’t you test the schools and close the ones that have a problem? I know, but first, I don’t know that we have the resources to do that now. But I can tell you honestly, the fear is too high to do anything other than, ‘Let’s do everything we can to get the infection rate down now, close the doors, close the windows.’ That’s where we are,” he said.
On October 9, he admitted, “we have a couple of unique clusters, frankly, which are more religious organizations, and that’s what we’re targeting.”
In a tragic irony, Cuomo resorted to using a 2006 photo from a funeral in upstate New York as supposed evidence that Orthodox Jewish gatherings have spread the coronavirus pandemic.
In one particularly egregious statement, Cuomo appears to have compared Orthodox Jews to the Ku Klux Klan.
“Look, the president fans division. He does. He always has, started in Charlottesville with KKK there are good people on both sides. No. The KKK is not good. Racism is not good. Discrimination is not good. Kidnapping is not good. Violence is not good. I see it here in New York with the political interference with this ultra-orthodox community that we have on our clusters. I believe that I have evidence that the Trump campaign is fueling their opposition and their divisiveness,” he told CNN’s Jim Sciutto.
“The Governor thus compared Orthodox Jews to the KKK,” the lawsuit notes.
Cuomo signed his order on October 6 and de Blasio announced he would implement the order on October 8. That weekend consisted of the Jewish holidays of Hoshana Rabbah (October 9), Shmini Atzeres (October 10), and Simchas Torah (October 11). City officials issued 62 tickets and more than $150,000 in fines on that weekend.
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BYAM is affiliated with Bais Yaakov, a global movement of Orthodox schools for Jewish girls. Sara Schenirer founded the first Bais Yaakov school in Krakow, Poland, in 1917. At the time, Ortodox Jewish girls received education only in the home, but Schenirer’s movement offered rigorous education for girls outside the home.
Cuomo’s “indefinite forced closure has had and will continue to have a devastating impact on Plaintiffs’ religious exercise, jeopardizing their ability to pass on their faith and way of life to the next generation through the many aspects of a religious education at BYAM that cannot be replicated through virtual means,” the lawsuit argues.
The lawsuit brings seven counts against Cuomo, de Blasio, and the other defendants.
It alleges Cuomo and others violated BYAM’s First Amendment right to free exercise of religion in three separate ways: not meeting the “strict scrutiny” test of applying the least restrictive means to achieve a compelling state interest; targeting Orthodox Jews for discrimination; and making statements calculated to chilling BYAM’s religious exercise even though BYAM has complied with government mandates.
The lawsuit also accuses Cuomo and others of violating BYAM’s Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection by discriminating against the school on the basis of religion, and violating the school’s freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of speech.
The discrimination Cuomo and de Blasio have applied against the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City is quite frankly beyond the pale. As a descendant of Eastern European Jews myself, I am horrified to see my distant cousins — who long suffered from pogroms and even the Holocaust — subjected to outright hostility and government repression in the Big Apple.
Lawsuits like this one are essential tools for holding Cuomo, de Blasio, and others to account for their disgusting COVID-19 orders. As three Orthodox Jewish rabbis put it in their own lawsuit over the same order, Cuomo’s restrictions are “blatantly anti-Semitic.”
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.