In a late Wednesday ruling, the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority voted in favor of a challenge from religious groups to New York’s coronavirus restrictions, temporarily barring the state from enforcing certain attendance limits on houses of worship in virus hotspots, with recently seated Justice Amy Coney Barrett casting a decisive vote.
Worshipers of the Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar synagogue gather outside New York Citys’ … [+] neighborhood of Williamsburg in the borough of Brooklyn on October 19,2020.
The legal challenges were filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Orthodox Jewish congregations who argued that capacity limits on houses of worship—imposed in neighborhoods with Covid-19 spikes by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in October—violated religious freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Though federal judges and the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both previously rejected the petitions from these religious groups, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor in a 5-4 vote.
In an unsigned order, a majority of the court echoed arguments from the groups that the restrictions “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”
While Cuomo’s October executive order allowed “essential” businesses like pet shops and grocery stores to continue operating at full capacity, “non-essential” businesses were forced to close, and houses of worship had capacity limited to 10 and 25 people in red and orange zones, respectively.
The Diocese of Brooklyn argued in its lawsuit that it was already operating safely at 25% capacity.
Though it may cause New York to reevaluate restrictions going forward, the ruling will not have an immediate impact as the restrictions were already lifted in the areas where these religious groups operate due to a dip in coronavirus cases.
“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,” wrote Justice Neil M. Gorsuch in a concurring opinion. “Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?”
In a letter sent to the court last Thursday, New York’s Solicitor General Barbara D. Underwood argued that there’s a “documented history of religious gatherings serving as Covid-19 superspreader events,” noting that indoor religious services “tend to involve large numbers of people from different households” arriving simultaneously and mingling throughout. Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined the court’s three liberal members in voting against the petitions, agreed in a dissenting opinion that the Supreme Court had reacted too rashly: “Numerical capacity limits of 10 and 25 people, depending on the applicable zone, do seem unduly restrictive.”
Recently confirmed to the court, Barrett, who voted with the majority, played a decisive role in the ruling, which ran counter to previous decisions from the court regarding coronavirus restrictions on houses of worship. In two separate cases about churches in California and Nevada, the court had ruled in the favor of the state governor’s power to restrict attendance at religious services. However, the makeup of the court has since changed, with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ushering in a new era of a 6-3 conservative majority.