The Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus restrictions on religious services in a split decision, The New York Times reports.
The court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of the Brooklyn Catholic Diocese and synagogues and Orthodox Jewish organizations, which sued to block limits on religious services from going into effect. The court issued an opinion blocking the decision but the case will still be litigated on its merits. The court’s conservative justices suggested that the restrictions violate the First Amendment and the restrictions would likely be struck down in litigation.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s three liberals in dissent, though he also argued that the rules likely violate the Constitution. Roberts said the issue was moot, however, because the restrictions had since been lifted.
Newly-confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett cast the deciding vote in the case.
The rulings are a reversal of the court’s position from cases brought regarding California and Nevada, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was still on the court.
Conservatives criticize religious rules:
“It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, arguing that the rules on churches were stricter than on other businesses considered “essential.”
Cuomo imposed a red zone in certain areas that limited religious services to 10 people and orange zones in surrounding areas limiting attendance to 25.
Neither of the synagogues and “none of the diocese’s churches will be affected by the gathering-size limits it seeks to enjoin,” New York argued in court.
“Numerical capacity limits of 10 and 25 people, depending on the applicable zone, do seem unduly restrictive,” Roberts argued, adding, “It is not necessary, however, for us to rule on that serious and difficult question at this time.”
“The governor might reinstate the restrictions,” he wrote. “But he also might not. And it is 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. If the governor does reinstate the numerical restrictions the applicants can return to this court, and we could act quickly on their renewed applications.”
Liberals back NY:
“Free religious exercise is one of our most treasured and jealously guarded constitutional rights,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent joined by Justice Elena Kagan. “States may not discriminate against religious institutions, even when faced with a crisis as deadly as this one. But those principles are not at stake today.”
“The Constitution does not forbid states from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorably than comparable secular institutions, particularly when those regulations save lives,” she added. “Because New York’s Covid-19 restrictions do just that, I respectfully dissent.”