Cuomo ban on summer camps upheld by judge, ruled constitutional

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Hundreds of Orthodox children took to the streets of Brooklyn to protest the ban on sleepaway camps this year.

Campers playing on the water at Camp Modin. The camp is perhaps the first Jewish camp in the country to announce, in detail, how it plans to open.  (photo credit: COURTESY OF CAMP MODIN)

Campers playing on the water at Camp Modin. The camp is perhaps the first Jewish camp in the country to announce, in detail, how it plans to open.

(photo credit: COURTESY OF CAMP MODIN)

A federal judge has upheld a decision by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to prohibit summer camps from opening this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, striking down an attempt by the Association of Jewish Camp Operators to sue the Governor and put a stay on his decision.

Hundreds of Orthodox children from Brooklyn neighborhoods took part in protests against Cuomo’s ban in June, waving banners reading ‘camps are essential,’ ‘no camp no justice,’ and in some cases simply ‘camp.’

Cuomo insisted that his ban, enacted June 12, was necessary, citing potential dangers from the COVID-19 virus. Camp operators disagreed, arguing that the ban was a form of religious discrimination, according to BoroPark24.

At a hearing on Monday, the Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby, Chief United States District Judge from the Northern District Of New York sided with the State, finding no basis for the claim of religious discrimination. Rather, the ban on sleepaway camps was in the public interest due to the health risks involved.

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He also dismissed claims by lawyers representing the camps that the sleepaway camps were comparable to educational settings, finding that day camps represent significantly less risk as the children attending day camps only share one meal daily and don’t share sleeping facilities. At the sleepaway camps, groups of 10 or more children share a cabin room, sleeping in bunk beds.

There was also concern that upstate hospitals may not have enough capacity should an outbreak of the coronavirus occur.

However, Judge Suddaby did find that Cuomo’s order to close the camps infringed on parents’ free exercise rights under the first amendment, and that the Governor had created a “de facto exemption” for protestors under the COVID-19 related guidance which created an air of discrimination.

Orthodox lawmakers have been increasingly vocal about opening summer camps as the lockdown has progressed. They say both are needed to relieve Orthodox families, who often have as many as 10 children, living in small apartments.State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein posted a video to Twitter in June calling on Cuomo to allow camps to open.

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“Let’s work together and find a way for our children to enjoy our sleepaway camp this summer,” he said.

Meanwhile, parents have been rushing to apply to the few camps across America who will be opening their doors.

Howard Salzberg, administrator for Camp Modin, an unaffiliated Jewish camp in Maine, told JTA that despite a huge increase in demand, they were taking fewer children this year.

“We chose not to max out,” he said. “We chose to limit the size of the bunks as best we could because we’re limited on how much of our camp programming we’re going to do this summer.”

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