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Onder joins lawsuit against New York officials over religious gatherings

A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction last week that said New York leaders were not neutral in implementing its reopening requirements, particularly when it came to houses of worship. And a Missouri lawmaker got involved in the case. 

U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe issued the preliminary injunction Friday after the Thomas More Society, a conservative law firm, filed suit on behalf of two Catholic priests and three Orthodox Jewish congregants in New York. 

The lawsuit, which named New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Attorney General Letitia James as well as New York City Mayor, alleged the Democratic officials violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights through restrictions placed on religious gatherings as the state — like the rest of the world — grappled with the coronavirus pandemic. 

New York leaders restricted religious services in more stringent ways than other gatherings, such as the massive protests following the late May death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody and outdoor graduation ceremonies, the plaintiffs alleged. 

Missouri state Sen. Bob Onder, a physician, joined the Thomas More Society as an expert witness in the case. He wrote an affidavit in favor of their argument on June 21, the Republican lawmaker said. 

“There have been various stay at home orders and restrictions on gatherings in all 50 states ever since the beginning of the pandemic. The public has, by and large, gone along with these restrictions in the name of public health and containing the pandemic,” Onder told The Missouri Times. 

“[Cuomo] praised and participated in the Black Lives Matter protests, and yet, he still was very restrictive and continued to threaten churches and synagogues should they exceed his orders,” Onder said. 

Onder was contacted by a Thomas More Society lawyer in New York to be an expert witness in this particular case because of his involvement in a similar effort in St. Louis County, he said. A church in Fenton sued the county and various officials in May, alleging the restrictions on gatherings infringed upon its First Amendment rights. 

That case has been dismissed without prejudice. 

Friday’s injunction blocked New York officials from enforcing restrictions on outdoor religious gatherings and limiting indoor gatherings stricter than what’s laid out in the state’s current phase of its reopening plan. 

Neither a representative for Cuomo nor de Blasio immediately returned a request for comment, but both administrations are reportedly reviewing the decision

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