Falun Gong devotees in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in Manhattan in 2014. Photo: Shutterstock/A Katz

A Queens-based group devoted to the Falun Gong movement—which has been labeled as a cult by the Chinese government—should be defined as a religious institution for the purposes of a lawsuit against a self-styled anti-cult group that it said has allegedly assaulted its members, a federal judge found.

U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York found that a statute that outlaws blocking access to houses of worship—as well as abortion clinics—should be broadly interpreted to include the Falun Gong, which has a temple in Flushing, Queens, and proselytizes from a table set up on the pedestrian-heavy Main Street.  

Any place a religion is practiced—be it in underneath a tree, in a meadow, or at a folding table on the streets of a busy city—is protected by this and other statutes and the First Amendment to the federal Constitution,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein said that a contrary interpretation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which has been on the books since 1994 and was passed in response to a rash of violent crime against abortion providers by activists, would render the statute unconstitutional because it would discriminate between religions that use formal temples and those that do not.

But Weinstein’s 80-page ruling in the case had something for both sides: The judge preserved the Falun Gong’s claims of assault and battery and bias-related violence and intimidation, which were brought under New York law and will be tried by a jury; he also said similar counterclaims by the Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance, which the plaintiffs allege was organized by the Chinese government to suppress the Falun Gong, will go before a jury.    

But the judge threw out the plaintiffs’ conspiracy to violate civil rights claim, as well as a similar counterclaim by the defendants, brought under the Ku Klux Klan Act, a law passed in 1871 that was intended to combat violence against African-Americans in the years following the Civil War.

The Falun Gong faithful denounce the Chinese government on various topics, including allegations of the harvesting of human organs, verbally and with signs and handouts.

Members of both the Falun Gong and the anti-cult group said they have been physically attacked by members of the other group, but Weinstein said there has been no “appreciable” physical harm to members of either group, and that violence between the groups has subsided since the Falun Gong filed suit in 2015.

The Falun Gong’s legal team includes Terri Marsh of the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Law Foundation; Jonathan Moore and Keith Szczepanski of Beldock Levine & Hoffman; and Joshua Moskovitz of Bernstein Clarke & Moskovitz.

“It’s, at its heart, a religious and spiritual practice that is deserving of recognition under the laws of the U.S. in this case,” said Moskovitz in an interview regarding Weinstein’s finding on whether or not the Falun Gong is considered a religion.

The defendants are represented by Tom Fini and Jacques Catafago of Catafago Fini and Edmond Wong of the Law Office of Edmond W. Wong.

In an interview, Fini applauded the judge’s decision to throw out the plaintiffs’ claims under the Ku Klux Klan Act and Weinstein’s ruling to deny the plaintiffs’ bid for injunctive relief.

“They’re literally trying to create a federal case out of minor incidents,” Fini said.