GENESEO – Livingston County Sheriff Thomas J. Dougherty confirmed Tuesday his deputies won’t disturb gatherings of more than 10 people if they’re gathered for the purpose of practicing their religion. Such a gathering would be in violation of an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and punishable by an up to $1,000 fine.
“I did put out a written directive to our patrol division members stating that if we are called to investigate a PAUSE violation involving people gathering for the purpose of a religious service, to do a drive by only, document in a report and forward to the chief deputy of our police services for further review,” said Dougherty in an email. “We will not be disrupting these services.”
The contents of the directive are in line with the actions the Sheriff’s Office has taken in response to previous complaints alleging violations of Cuomo’s New York on PAUSE order in Livingston County, Dougherty said.
“We have not made one arrest on a PAUSE-related complaint but instead investigated and, if founded, educated only,” he explained.
Dougherty said his decision to issue the directive was “very difficult,” especially given the intent of Cuomo’s order – to minimize loss of life during a public health crisis. But with businesses starting to resume operations under the first phase of the governor’s reopening plan, and more slated to begin opening in Phase II, it ultimately came down to a Constitutional issue, he said.
“The First Amendment is very clear and therefore we will not interfere with these religious gatherings,” Dougherty said. “Instead, we will do the drive by, document and review each case without disruption.”
Dougherty declined to provide a copy of the written directive he sent to deputies.
New York’s public gathering restrictions, which have been in place in some form since mid-March, started to slacken earlier this month in certain areas of the state that met criteria laid out in Cuomo’s reopening plan, which he dubbed New York Forward.
The plan established four different phases during which certain types of business are allowed to start reopening in the regions of the state that achieve public health metrics, such as a sufficiently low coronavirus infection rate and the presence of robust contact-tracing capacity.
The Finger Lakes Region, which includes Livingston County, was among the regions allowed to begin Phase I reopening May 15. The phase allowed businesses in the construction, agriculture and manufacturing industries, among others, to resume operations, provided they observe social distancing and other public health measures meant to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
To read the New York Forward reopening guidelines, click here.
But nowhere in Cuomo’s initial reopening plan was there mention of when places of worship would be allowed to resume normal religious observances. In statements May 18, the state’s budget director, Robert Mujica, said churches would be allowed to begin reopening in the fourth and final phase of the state’s reopening plan.
That drew criticism from faith leaders, 300 of whom signed an open letter May 19 calling on Cuomo “to prioritize the safe re-opening of churches for in-person worship services.”
In a statement announcing the letter, Jason McGuire, executive director for New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative values advocacy and lobbying group, argued churches should be allowed to begin reopening earlier, during Phase II.
“If it is safe to re-open retail establishments in a given region, it is safe to re-open churches in that region as well,” said McGuire, a Lima resident.
Local faith leaders who signed the open letter include Rev. Paul Palmer of the Oakland Wesleyan Church in Nunda, Pastor Donald Ray of the Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Geneseo, and Pastor Matthew White of Village Baptist Church in Mount Morris.
To read the letter, click here.
In statements May 20, Cuomo addressed the issue, saying religious gatherings of up to 10 people were OK, as long as participants observed social distancing guidelines and wore face masks. The governor followed those statements with a May 21 executive order, which permitted gatherings “of ten or fewer individuals for any religious service or ceremony.”
To read the executive order, click here.
Cuomo also encouraged places of worship to consider drive-in and parking lot services for religious ceremonies.
“As a former altar boy, I get it. I think even at this time of stress and when people are so anxious and so confused, I think those religious ceremonies can be very comforting,” Cuomo said. “But we need to find out how to do it, and do it safely, and do it smartly. The last thing we want to do is have a religious ceremony that winds up having more people infected.”
In a statement posted to its website, NYCF said Cuomo’s 10 or fewer people concession on religious services doesn’t go far enough, calling it “an attempt to appease faith communities by making a minor gesture in our direction that falls far short of what is needed.”
Added the group: “A continued ban on worship services of more than 10 people effectively prevents all but the smallest churches from holding in-person services. There is no public health reason to bar churches in areas that have not been significantly affected by the pandemic from holding in-person services, provided that health and safety precautions are taken.”