On Wednesday night, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s limitations on religious gatherings were unconstitutional, after previously ruling in favor of state ordered limits in California and Nevada.
The ruling was the first major one made with new conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett serving on the court, filling the seat left by the late Democratic Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and it confirmed expectations Coney Barrett would vote with conservatives in favor of religious freedoms.
Cuomo ordered religious gatherings in New York’s red and orange zones not exceed 10 and 25 people respectively in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Seeing the move as targeting religious institutions, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Orthodox Jewish Synagogues in Brooklyn filed a lawsuit against Cuomo.
Although the institutions are no longer facing the restrictions listed in the suit as the zones they are located in have been downgraded to yellow zones, the case still went ahead and the court’s majority ruled restrictions violated the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion, sending Cuomo a message about future restrictions.
In its ruling, the court said: “Stemming the spread of COVID–19 is unquestionably a compelling interest, but it is hard to see how the challenged regulations can be regarded as ‘narrowly tailored.’ They are far more restrictive than any COVID–related regulations that have previously come before the Court, much tighter than those adopted by many other jurisdictions hard-hit by the pandemic, and far more severe than has been shown to be required to prevent the spread of the virus at the applicants’ services.”
The decision also noted that businesses categorized as ‘essential’ could admit as many people as they wished, while religious institutions faced strict occupancy limits.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a concurring opinion where he said it was “past time” to make it clear there was, “no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques.”
Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the three Democratic judges in the minority.
In his dissenting opinion, Roberts said it was, “a significant matter to override determinations made by public health officials concerning what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic.”
In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “I fear that granting applications such as the one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn…will only exacerbate the Nation’s suffering.”
“Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily,” she wrote.
In a conference call Thursday, Cuomo said the ruling had no practical impact and was more illustrative of the Supreme Court. He added the ruling would not completely stop him from implementing future restrictions if needed, as it allowed for some capacity restrictions and other rules around mask-wearing and social distancing.
Cuomo said he was a former altar boy and fully respected religion, adding if there was a time in life we needed it, the time was now. “But we want to make sure we keep people safe at the same time. And that’s the balance we’re trying to hit, especially through this holiday season.”
Church gatherings have been proven super-spreader events, with congregants singing and talking — at times without masks and at close proximity for long periods of time.
On Thursday, The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn Bishop of Brooklyn Nicholas DiMarzio said in a statement published in Gothamist: “I have said from the beginning the restrictions imposed by Governor Cuomo were an overreach that did not take into account the size of our churches or the safety protocols that have kept parishioners safe. Catholics in Brooklyn and Queens have adhered to all COVID-19 safety protocols to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist. Our churches have not been the cause of any outbreaks. We have taken our legal battle this far because we should be considered essential, for what could be more essential than safely gathering in prayer in a time of pandemic.”
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