Lebovits v. Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have unnecessarily, unscientifically, and wrongly targeted Orthodox Jews for a series of shutdown orders ostensibly designed to restrict COVID-19. These orders were overbroad and targeted all members of a specific religious and ethnic group—Orthodox Jews—for government disfavor, regardless of whether they have seen COVID-19 infections or not. Governor Cuomo publicly stated that these orders were designed to target Orthodox Jews, that the orders were driven by “fear” rather than science, and that no other government has taken similar measures. He even described these new orders as cutting with a “hatchet.”
Swept up in this government overreach has been the Lebovits family of Long Island. Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits send their two daughters, one in third grade and one in kindergarten, to Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam (BYAM), an Orthodox Jewish religious girls’ school located in Far Rockaway, New York City. Although BYAM has been open for months with rigorous health protocols, and without a single COVID-19 case, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio shut BYAM down—and deprived the Lebovits girls of an education—simply because it is an Orthodox Jewish school.
On October 16, 2020, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty filed suit against the Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s targeting orders in New York federal district court. Just a few days later, on October 21, 2020, Cuomo rescinded his orders, allowing the Lebovits family to return to school.
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A long-standing Jewish tradition
Opened in 2012, Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam is an Orthodox Jewish girls’ school in Far Rockaway, New York City, that stands in a long tradition of Jewish schools founded to teach young women about their faith. The first Bais Yaakov school was founded in 1917 in Poland, to provide an alternative to secular education that did not support and educate young Jewish women on the history and traditions of their faith. Today, BYAM celebrates Jewish holidays, holds communal prayers, and engages in group projects and exegetical debates—activities that are central to the traditions of Orthodox Judaism.
Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits moved to their current home precisely because they wanted to give their girls a great Jewish education at BYAM. But without the opportunity to embrace their unique cultural, linguistic and religious heritage—teaching and learning that can only properly be done in-person—the Lebovits girls and other young Jewish girls are deprived of an irreplaceable opportunity to learn and live out their faith. Yitzchok and Chana are being hindered in passing on their Jewish beliefs and practices on to their daughters.
In March, BYAM voluntarily transitioned to remote learning to protect their neighbors and in compliance with the law. In the months that followed the school spent thousands of dollars equipping the entire school with Wi-Fi, purchasing additional laptops and tablets for teachers to use while offering remote instruction, and to pay for transportation for teachers who would normally use buses to get to school. Nevertheless, remote learning proved to be a poor substitute for in-person instruction. As the state began to reopen over the summer, BYAM looked forward to opening safely, responsibly and cooperatively.
And it did just that. In the first month of school, BYAM handed out hundreds of masks and implemented many safety and hygiene protocols to ensure the safety of students and community members, including social distancing and daily temperature checks. The happy result of those comprehensive efforts has been zero cases of COVID-19 in the school. BYAM has thus become a safe haven for girls to gather and learn about their religious heritage.
Cuomo and de Blasio crack down on Jews
Unfortunately, the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City has been singled out by the government as the scapegoats for COVID-19 spread since the beginning of the pandemic. In April of 2020, Mayor de Blasio dispersed a Jewish funeral and then threatened them with law enforcement. During the subsequent summer – while Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio praised nearby mass protests, Jewish families were ousted from Brooklyn parks by the New York Police Department acting at the behest of the Mayor.
But, despite doing everything right, BYAM has been caught in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s crusade against Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. After months of scapegoating Jews for coronavirus infections in New York City, in late September/early October 2020 Cuomo and de Blasio announced a plan to target “microclusters” of COVID-infections in New York City by locking down Jewish neighborhoods and schools. On October 6 – just before three important Jewish holy days – Governor Cuomo issued an executive order that shut impending Jewish celebrations down, claiming that mildly elevated rates of positive coronavirus tests justified extraordinary emergency powers, while at the same time admitting that those elevated rates “would be a safe zone” in many other states.
Remarkably, 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.”
Protecting the fundamental right of religious education
Remote learning has taken a serious toll on the educational opportunities for the Lebovits girls and other BYAM students. Teachers have reported alarming regression in reading skills, had to reteach prayers, and are requesting last year’s math textbooks. In many cases, students have tested a full year below grade level in both Hebrew and English reading.
The government’s attempt to close BYAM is a direct threat to the future of the Jewish faith tradition that Bais Yaakov schools have been teaching for over a hundred years. By putting Jewish religious education on hold indefinitely, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio weren’t just halting educational growth, they were stifling the religious exercise of Jewish families, and depriving the Lebovits girls of part of their childhood.
Becket and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty represented the Lebovits family and BYAM in the federal District Court for the Northern District of New York, where the school asked the court to protect BYAM from future bigotry and to hold Cuomo and de Blasio accountable for violating their First Amendment rights. Shortly after Becket filed the lawsuit, Cuomo reversed his policy and allowed Bais Yaakov Ateres Miriam and other schools in its Far Rockaway neighborhood to open. The case was settled out of court.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Religious Communities: Religious groups have the right to form their own institutions and to pass their teachings down to the next generation. Schools like BYAM, which help preserve the Jewish faith and instill Jewish values in the next generation, are constitutionally protected from government restrictions that single them out for unfair treatment.