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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo significantly revised a social distancing order on Friday, after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had accused him of unconstitutionally protecting religious services over other types of gatherings amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Mark D. Levine, who chairs the New York City Health Committee, suspected the revised order came as the result of a legal challenge, but indicated it was premature.
"This shocking order, forced by a lawsuit, changes nothing about the risks associated with group gatherings -- especially those held indoors," he said. "We need the public to continue to be smart and use judgment about the risks of this virus, regardless of what the court has forced on us."
However, the New York Chapter of the ACLU (NYACLU) praised the governor's decision, which came after it filed a lawsuit against the original order.
"We're glad to see the governor reverse course on his executive order from last night," NYCLU Legal Director Christopher Dunn said in a press release.
"The right to protest and exercise free speech is the foundation of all our other liberties, and during a crisis is exactly when we need to be most vigilant about protecting it. Health experts, elected officials, and police officers all agree that people can be outside safely while practicing social distancing, and it's critical that lawmakers create guidelines and direct law enforcement uniformly."
The controversy touched on a nationwide debate about how to best balance civil liberties with public health during the coronavirus pandemic.
First Liberty, a legal nonprofit, has decried the impact of coronavirus shutdowns on houses of worship.
“The discrimination that has been occurring against churches and houses of worship has been shocking,” First Liberty President Kelly Shackelford said in a statement. “Americans are going to malls and restaurants. They need to be able to go to their houses of worship.”
On Friday, President Trump said that his administration would clarify that houses of worship are "essential" during the crisis. While Trump has called on governors to allow religious gatherings, it's unclear whether he has the authority to force them to do so.
“Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now -- for this weekend,” Trump said at a hastily arranged press conference at the White House. Asked what authority Trump might have to supersede governors, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she wouldn’t answer a theoretical question.
Following Trump’s announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines for communities of faith on how to safely reopen, including recommendations to limit the size of gatherings and consider holding services outdoors or in large, well-ventilated areas.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.