Camp Sternberg in Narrowsburg, New York, is one of the camps covered by the lawsuit.

By Marcy Farrell

Following New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision last week to stop overnight camps in the state from opening this summer, Agudath Israel of America-led Association of Jewish Camp Operators (AJCO) and several parents filed suit Thursday in federal court to overturn that decision.

“Today I joined The Association of Jewish Camp Operators and 3 other parents in healthcare as a plaintiff against NY Governor Cuomo to reopen overnight camps. The issue lies in equity: consistent safety across all religious or political practices,” parent Gail Zahtz posted on Twitter.

The filing argues that by closing camps, Cuomo has deprived parents of their rights to disseminate their religious values by choosing an immersive Jewish camp experience for their children.

“Defendant flatly refused to permit Jewish overnight camps from this closure order, notwithstanding the fact that those religious camps involve the exercise of First Amendment-protected religious activity of conveying Jewish values to children and have expressed their willingness to adopt health and safety  protocols similar to, but even more protective than, those issued by the State for child care services and day camp programs to ensure that children and staff are protected from the transmission of COVID-19,” the complaint reads.

The lawsuit asks for the court to stop the enforcement of his COVID-19
orders to close all Jewish overnight camps.

The suit also asserts that Cuomo allowed and even encouraged widespread protests across the state following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

“Defendant cannot constitutionally create a First Amendment exemption for protesters that he agrees with, while ignoring the First Amendment rights of Plaintiffs by enforcing his COVID-19 orders to ban on all overnight camps, without making a similar exemption for First Amendment-protected camps, such as the Jewish overnight camps,” according to the suit.

The lawsuit admonishes the governor to for rejecting the safety plan proposed by AJCO, a consortium of Orthodox Jewish overnight camps serving approximately 41,000 children. The plan, in the estimation of the nine nationally-recognized infectious disease doctors and other medical professionals who signed it, would have minimized the risk of infection and been far safer than having children remain in an unregulated environment that lacks the “protective bubble” and rigorous safety procedures the AJCO plan proposed.

“We worked to change the mind of the governor’s office for months,” explained Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Agudah’s New York Government Affairs Director. “But as soon as we received the decision, we mobilized to take the next steps, including this lawsuit. Our children and their health, development, and safety are too important to do anything less.”

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