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

Ruling in a lawsuit filed by a Queens-based religious group that the Chinese government has branded as a cult, a federal judge ruled in a case of first impression that a statutory provision prohibiting the obstruction of access to houses of worship is constitutional.

The provision for religious institutions was included in an act of Congress that protected access to health clinics where abortion services are provided.

U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York said his 38-page ruling was the first in the country to consider the constitutionality of a provision of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACEA), which became law in 1994.

All circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals have upheld as a constitutional exercise of congressional power under the commerce clause the portion of the FACEA protecting women seeking abortion services. 

As for the provision on houses of worship, Weinstein found that, while the First Amendment requires that the government “keep its hands off” religion, the two institutions are linked by a strong economic relationship: governments grant tax exemptions for churches, for example, and provide assistance for religious schools.

But noting that a two-month trial scheduled for August looms ahead in the case, which will likely require the assistance interpreters and in which the jury will have to make more than 230 decisions, Weinstein also certified his ruling for an interlocutory appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

“Prudence requires an appeal of this issue before a costly two-month jury trial that may result in mistrial or require reversal,” Weinstein said.  

In finding the provision constitutional, Weinstein rejected the Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss a suit filed by members of the Falun Gong, which has a temple in Flushing, Queens, and proselytizes from tables set up on the pedestrian-heavy Main Street.

Falun Gong adherents also use the location to stage protests against the Chinese government on various topics, including allegations of the harvesting of human organs.  

Members of the two groups have clashed in the past, and sometimes violently, but Weinstein said in a ruling in April that neither groups’ members suffered any serious physical harm and that, since the Falun Gong filed suit in 2015, physical violence at the site has subsided.  

The judge also found in his April ruling that the Falun Gong should be considered a religion as defined under the FACEA and preserved the group’s state law claims of assault and battery and bias-related violence and intimidation.

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

In his finding that the provision of the FACEA protecting places of religious worship passes constitutional muster under the commerce clause, Weinstein said the constitutionality of the law is “not obvious,” but said that houses of worship offer services to congregants, provide jobs and take in and expend considerable amounts of money.

It is an anomaly of our religious jurisprudence that the basic structure of the relationship between government and religion requires government to keep its hands off religion,” the judge said. “Yet, carrying out the disestablishment rule has not prevented a strong economic relationship between the two: religion and government.”

Weinstein also cited scholarly research estimating that religious activity in American life can have an impact on the U.S. economy ranging from $378 billion annually, when counting revenue produced by religious institution,; to up to $4.8 trillion, when counting the value of “personal and social religious dynamics.”

The Falun Gong is represented by 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.

Moskovitz said that the two sides in the case have held settlement talks, but said Weinstein’s decision was significant in that the judge recognized the role that religious institutions play in providing social services.

“I think what he did was the right decision,” Moskovitz said.

The anti-cult group is represented by Tom Fini and Jacques Catafago of Catafago Fini and Edmond Wong of the Law Office of Edmond W. Wong.

Fini said his clients have 10 days to appeal the ruling to the Second Circuit and that they will likely do so if the two sides do not reach a settlement. As for the merits of the case, he said that the plaintiffs’ “manufactured” claims have been whittled down to a single federal count that may be put up for appellate review.  

“That federal case is on life support,” Fini said.