In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court sided with religious organizations in a dispute over pandemic restructons put in place by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo limiting the number of people attending religious services.
The case highlights the impact of last-minute Trump SCOTUS Justice Amy Coney Barrett who sided with her conservative colleagues.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the three liberal justices in dissent. Last spring and summer, before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court split 5-4 on similar cases out of California and Nevada, with Roberts and the liberals in the majority siding against houses of worship. Barrett was confirmed in October to take Ginsburg’s seat.
The ruling, released just before midnight on Thanksgiving eve (holiday news dump?) contains several separate opinions and some very critical language.
According to CNN,
In the main, unsigned opinion, the majority ruled in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America that argued that the restrictions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment because the regulations treated the houses of worship more harshly than comparable secular facilities.
The majority said that the regulations 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 religious services in question.
The restrictions on attendance are divided up by geographic zones in areas classified as “red” or “orange” zones. In court papers, lawyers for Cuomo argued that the restrictions were necessary to help stop the spread of Covid-19 and that houses of worship weren’t being treated differently than similar secular businesses. They also said that while the dispute was pending, Cuomo had already lifted any restrictions that applied to the organizations.
The ruling stated,
“Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services.
Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
Lawyers for the diocese had told the justices in court papers that the
“pandemic alone cannot justify overbroad, untailored closure orders of indefinite duration directed at all houses of worship, that in another time would plainly be found to violate the Constitution.”
And lawyers for the Agudath Israel of America said that the governor has specifically targeted Orthodox Jews who have
“violated his prior rules.
The Governor’s guilt-by-religious-association restrictions have made it impossible for Applicants and their members to exercise their religious faith.”
(Photos, Wikipedia; via CNN)