HORSEHEADS, N.Y. (WETM) – James Ostrowski, a Buffalo-area attorney representing the Lighthouse Baptist Church, spoke to members of the media on Monday morning calling for the county to relieve the closure order issued against the Horseheads church.
“The church has been unfairly accused of things, said Ostrowski. “There’s no evidence at all that anything improper was done.”
He says that during the pandemic the church was “encouraging masks wearing, social distancing, hand washing.”
On Sept. 6 the church was notified of two positive cases of COVID-19 within its congregation. Chemung County Executive Chris Moss says that there are now approximately 70 cases of COVID-19 and one death connected to the church.
County Executive Moss said last week said that the church “did not follow the guidelines” implemented by the county and state.
“Only some of the folks were wearing facial coverings, we know there was no social distancing of six feet taking place. We also have information that a parishioner who was positive was allowed to attend church, not only attend church but sing in the choir.”
According to the New York State guidelines for religious and funeral services, there can be no more than 33% capacity in a church once their region is in phase four, six feet must be maintained amongst all individuals, singing activity must provide for a distance between individuals of 12 feet, and face coverings should be worn at all times.
The church is asking that the closure order implemented by Chemung County in early September be removed because it violates their first amendment right to practice their religion freely.
“Governor Cuomo does not have the moral, legal right or the practical knowledge or experience to be a dictator,” said Ostrowski. He went on to say that the “constitution was drafted and ratified and enacted during a time when there were viruses all over the place. There were plagues, there was Smallpox. Never any understanding of the constitution that it depended on everyone being in good health.”
When asked why the church could not do online or other virtual services, Ostrowski declined to directly comment, instead saying that to compare a Zoom service to an in-person one is “inaccurate” and that “Christian religions have emphasized personal contact.”
Ostrowski also alleged that “there’s evidence of inflation of death reports” regarding COVID-19, that “nobody is strictly complying” with shutdown orders, and that there isn’t evidence that New York’s shutdown order has prevented the spread of COVID-19.
“You’re assuming that the governor’s lockdown regime is good for public health. Show me the evidencem it’s not there.”
Several studies have supported the shutdown of New York earlier this year, including a Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health report, which found that “school closures and voluntary or mandated stay-at-home measures—contributed to around a 70 percent reduction in the transmission of COVID-19 in New York City during the spring pandemic wave from March to the June reopening.”
Members of the congregation were on the Zoom call, but when asked by 18 News whether they would like to speak during the call, Ostrowski stepped in and declined.
Ostrowski says the church is working with Chemung County to implement a reopening plan, but on Monday rejected the guidelines proposed by the county attorney.
One guideline Ostrowski mentioned being rejected was a daily log of who visited the church, which would be submitted every day.
“It’s too much, it’s not justified. They don’t have the legal authority to do it. There’s no scientific evidence that this type of burden is, is justified… if we locked everybody in the house for the next month and ordered them not to go to any buildings over two stories high we could eliminate all elevator accidents forever.”
When asked how he could compare elevator accidents to COVID-19, Ostrowski said he was “just using that as an example.”
Ostrowski says that the church is “willing to compromise and go along with things that we think are illegal just to avoid litigation and to get the church back up and running.”
The entire news conference can be viewed below once it has rendered.