A federal judge on Friday allowed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to move forward with new restrictions on gatherings at synagogues and other houses of worships, finding that the rules did not violate the free exercise of religion for Orthodox Jews.
The ruling in federal court in Brooklyn came after Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization, sued Mr. Cuomo this week over his latest executive order detailing an array of new restrictions to address rising coronavirus cases in neighborhoods with large populations of Orthodox Jews.
After an emergency hearing on Friday, the judge declined to temporarily block Mr. Cuomo’s executive order ahead of three Jewish holidays over the weekend. She said she sympathized with the order’s impact on the Orthodox Jewish community, but rejected the argument that Mr. Cuomo had unconstitutionally targeted a religious minority.
“How can we ignore the compelling state interest in protecting the health and life of all New Yorkers?” said Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto of Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
When announcing the executive order, Mr. Cuomo set new capacity limits for houses of worship. In zones with the highest infection rates, houses of worship would be limited to 25 percent capacity or a maximum of 10 people, while those in a less severe hot spot could have 50 percent capacity.
Judge Matsumoto, noting that the order also shut down nonessential businesses and schools in the hardest-hit zones, found that the new rules were not motivated by an intention to discriminate against Orthodox Jews. The religious burdens caused by the restrictions were outweighed by the need to stop “the most significant health crisis in living memory,” she said.
Lawyers for Agudath Israel, an umbrella group with affiliated synagogues around the country, had argued that the new rules were unconstitutional. Orthodox Jews are disproportionately affected, they said, because they are prohibited from driving during religious holidays and cannot travel to synagogues in neighborhoods with fewer restrictions.
In a tweet after the ruling, Agudath Israel called the decision a “crushing disappointment” while reminding its followers to adhere to health guidelines.
The judge’s decision means that Mr. Cuomo can impose the new restrictions, which went into effect on Friday, as the lawsuit progresses. Anyone who violates the order against mass gatherings can be subject to a daily fine of $15,000.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn also filed a similar lawsuit against Mr. Cuomo, arguing that the restrictions would effectively force at least two dozen churches in Brooklyn and Queens to close. After a separate hearing on Friday, a different judge said he would decide at a later time whether to block the executive order.
The legal actions underscored the challenge facing New York officials as they try to fight off a second wave of virus infections and navigate a crisis at the intersection of public health, religion and politics. Some areas in New York City had infection rates of around 8 percent, officials said, far higher than the 1 percent rate for the rest of the city.
The restrictions were intended to curb worrisome outbreaks of the coronavirus in Brooklyn, Queens and New York City’s northern suburbs, including several areas with large Orthodox populations. Orthodox synagogues have in recent months become scenes of large gatherings of worshipers clustered together, many not wearing face coverings.
“This is the last thing I want to do,” Mr. Cuomo said earlier this week. “It’s a difficult conversation, and you’re right on the line of government intrusion on religion.”
Mr. Cuomo’s announcement came on the eve of three Jewish holidays this weekend — Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah.
Lawyers for the state argued that the restrictions did not unfairly target the Orthodox Jewish community, saying it was not a violation of the Constitution to acknowledge that religious gatherings have a higher risk of spreading the virus.
“The First Amendment’s protections do not require that the government ignore reality and common sense,” a lawyer for the state wrote in a court filing on Friday.
The lawsuits followed heightened tensions over the new lockdowns, which prompted ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn this week to protest, light masks on fire and attack at least three people, including two local men accused of disloyalty to the Hasidic community.
A leader of the protests, Heshy Tischler, said on Friday that he would be arrested on Monday for inciting a riot. The incident involved a reporter for Jewish Insider, Jacob Kornbluh, who said he was assaulted and hit in the head by a crowd during a protest this week.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said the video footage of the attack was “disgusting to watch,” adding that an arrest was expected. The New York Police Department declined to confirm Mr. Tischler’s statement and said the matter was part of an active investigation.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said in an interview on Friday that he was unhappy about the violent protests in Borough Park, but thought the protesters did not represent most members of the ultra-Orthodox community.
Judge Matsumoto’s ruling came down roughly two hours before the start of a series of religious holidays during which Orthodox Jews do not use technology, which meant there was not enough time for leaders to strategize about next steps, Rabbi Zwiebel said.
The governor’s new restrictions will affect hundreds of synagogues and tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews in New York, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs said that instead of targeting houses of worship, Mr. Cuomo should have focused on enforcing social distancing and other Covid-19 restrictions, including at bars and restaurants.
The rabbis in the lawsuit said their synagogues had already implemented strict protocols in compliance with earlier state mandates, including splitting services into separate gatherings and requiring congregants to wear a mask.
“There is simply no justification for the unwarranted, unnecessary and unconstitutional restrictions imposed this week,” lawyers for Agudath Israel wrote.
At one point during Friday’s hearing, which was conducted by telephone, more than 700 people had dialed in. Some of them did not mute their phones, turning the hearing into a chaotic two hours, as the arguments were interrupted by occasional screaming, music, burping and shouts of “Trump 2020.”
The Orthodox Jewish community was devastated by the coronavirus in the spring, when local leaders and ultra-Orthodox news organizations said hundreds of people might have died, including beloved religious leaders.
But since then, many in the community have failed to wear masks and adhere to other public health guidelines because of what local leaders describe as a mix of denial, misinformation and wishful thinking about herd immunity.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders have scrambled in recent weeks to avert a shutdown, urging their followers to embrace masks and social distancing. Many said they were stunned and outraged by the governor’s proposed restrictions on religious gatherings.
Joseph Goldstein and Benjamin Weiser contributed reporting.