Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn warned on Friday that New York’s most recent coronavirus measures were “not reasonable.” Speaking one day after his diocese argued in court against new state restrictions on religious assembly, the bishop said religion was being treated as a second class part of society.
“We are relegated to the sidelines, religion,” DiMarzio of Brooklyn told CNA on Oct. 16. “‘Religion is the problem of society,’ the way people think today.”
“In the past, you would think the non-profit sector, religion, was a pillar of the society along with the business community and with the government. This was what held society together. Now, that kind of a thesis of how society works is long since gone, unfortunately,” he said.
Bishop DiMarzio spoke with CNA after the diocese had a hearing in federal court on Thursday in its case against New York’s new public health restrictions.
The state order, announced last week, targeted geographic “hot spots” around the state where the number of cases of the new coronavirus is reportedly surging and put, among other limits, caps on attendance at indoor religious services to slow the spread of the virus.
Under the state order, some churches in Brooklyn and Queens are limited to either 25% capacity or 10 people at indoor Masses, baptism, weddings, and funerals—whichever amount is less—or to 33% capacity or 25 people in other areas, whichever amount is less.
As churches in the diocese are “very large,” the bishop said, liturgies would be effectively limited to either 10 people or 25 people.
DiMarzio said that the diocese worked with public health officials over the summer to implement safety measures in reopening churches, and has been successful in doing so.
“Everything that we know possible to avoid this virus is being done,” he said, noting that churches are requiring Mass attendees to wear masks, limiting attendance to 25% capacity, and requiring families to sit six feet apart inside.
“We’re not asking for full capacity,” he said, noting that churches in the diocese “are very large” and can safely accommodate far more than the 10-or-25-person limit the state is effectively ordering.
But, the bishop told CNA, the diocese’s legal challenge to the state is not about logistics, it is about “religious freedom,” and the unacceptability of classing churches as “non-essential” businesses.
“We have a different place in society than businesses,” the bishop said, noting that some “essential” stores in the area are open and do not count the number of people going inside.
“This is all part of the problem. There are two standards, where everybody’s being lumped together, no matter how they deal with the issue,” he said, calling the restrictions “not reasonable.”
The diocesan parishes are not reporting outbreaks of the virus traced to Masses, he said.
“Today, people are very wont to complain to the Church if they don’t like what’s happening,” DiMarzio observed. “If there was a problem, we would know about it.”
“Other religions,” he said, are “packing 400 people into small places” without a mask requirement “and expecting it to be fine.”
“That’s the difference,” he said. “We just have acted differently, and I think we should be treated differently.”
But, the bishop said that he was not arguing for houses of worship to be allowed to flaut basic health rules or or ignore safety requirements.
“Houses of worship should follow the guidelines that are put in by the state for the safety of everyone. We are following them. That’s our point,” he said, calling the new restrictions “a little bit of an overreach.”
In March and April, the diocese lost two priests to the virus. Bishop DiMarzio acknowledged that it has been a “challenge” leading the diocese through the pandemic, and has focused on maintaining communication with everyone. “We don’t want them to be isolated,” he said.
The priests’ deaths highlighted the seriousness of the pandemic for the diocese, and the need to take all reasonable measures, he said.
“We have to be careful. I’m not trying to be cavalier,” DiMarzio said.
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