New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s bungled response to COVID-19 has turned the nation’s largest metropolis into a disease-infested hotspot rife with economic and social tensions. Now parents in the city’s sizeable Orthodox Jewish community are asking a court to enjoin further restrictions on private education described in a suit as being “unscientific and discriminatory” in their origin because they prevent children enrolled in religious schools from attending them.
On Monday Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits — whose daughters attend the all-girl Bais Yaakov Ateres private school — asked a New York judge to prevent Cuomo’s latest anti-COVID-19 restrictions from taking effect specifically on the grounds they target the Orthodox Jewish community. Backed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, public-interest legal organization protecting religious freedom and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, the Lebovits want new regulations leading to school closures issued by Cuomo on October 6 set aside.
“We are devastated for our daughters and their classmates who are needlessly suffering because of the governor’s policy,” Mrs. Lebovits said. “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.”
The new restrictions ban completely in-person instruction at BYAM and other schools in Jewish neighborhoods in New York City, effectively infringing severely on the rights of parents to direct the religious education and upbringing of their children. The restrictions come after months of Cuomo and de Blasio’s apparent scapegoating of the Orthodox community, blaming them for the virus’s spread throughout the city while they were at the same time not only failing to condemn but praising the mass protests against economic and racial inequality that in some cases led to violence and looting in Manhattan.
In early October, a federal judge in New York found the new restrictions did specifically target the Orthodox Jewish community, laying the groundwork for the suit. “There is no place for bigotry in the Big Apple,” said Mark Rienzi, Becket president, and senior counsel.
“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,” Rienzi added, referring to comments Cuomo can be overheard making during a telephone conversation with leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community. In that conversation, a copy of which was given to the New York media, the governor admits the policies he has put in place to lock down the state and keep residents confined to the homes and children out of school were based on political concerns, not science.
Critics have argued the measures taken by Cuomo and de Blasio to prevent the virus from spreading may have instead hastened its introduction into vulnerable population groups, especially among seniors and others living in nursing homes. The World Health Organization and others have recently concluded the number of deaths in nursing homes attributed to the disease is considerably higher than those occurring in the rest of the population.