SCOTUS Blocks NY Worship Virus Limits 11/27 06:31
WASHINGTON (AP) -- With coronavirus cases surging again nationwide, the
Supreme Court barred New York from enforcing certain limits on attendance at
churches and synagogues in areas designated as hard hit by the virus.
The justices split 5-4 late Wednesday night, with new Justice Amy Coney
Barrett in the majority. It was the conservative's first publicly discernible
vote as a justice. The court's three liberal justices and Chief Justice John
The move was a shift for the court. Earlier this year, when Barrett's
liberal predecessor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was still on the court, the
justices divided 5-4 to leave in place pandemic-related capacity restrictions
affecting churches in California and Nevada.
The court's action Wednesday could push New York to reevaluate its
restrictions on houses of worship in areas designated virus hot spots. But the
impact is also muted because the Catholic and Orthodox Jewish groups that sued
to challenge the restrictions are no longer subject to them.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Thursday the ruling was "more
illustrative of the Supreme Court than anything else" and "irrelevant from any
practical impact" given that the restrictions have already been removed.
"Why rule on a case that is moot and come up with a different decision than
you did several months ago on the same issue?" Cuomo asked in a conference call
with reporters. "You have a different court. And I think that was the statement
that the court was making."
The Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America have churches and
synagogues in areas of Brooklyn and Queens previously designated red and orange
zones. In those red and orange zones, the state had capped attendance at houses
of worship at 10 and 25 people, respectively. But the those particular areas
are now designated as yellow zones with less restrictive rules neither group
The justices acted on an emergency basis, temporarily barring New York from
enforcing the restrictions against the groups while their lawsuits continue. In
an unsigned opinion the court said the restrictions "single out houses of
worship for especially harsh treatment."
"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. The
restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending
religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment's guarantee
of religious liberty," the opinion said.
The opinion noted that in red zones, while a synagogue or church cannot
admit more than 10 people, businesses deemed "essential," from grocery stores
to pet shops, can remain open without capacity limits. And in orange zones,
while synagogues and churches are capped at 25 people, "even non-essential
businesses may decide for themselves how many persons to admit."
Roberts, in dissent, wrote that there was "simply no need" for the court's
action. "None of the houses of worship identified in the applications is now
subject to any fixed numerical restrictions," he said, adding that New York's
10 and 25 person caps "do seem unduly restrictive."
"The Governor might reinstate the restrictions. 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," he wrote.
Roberts and four other justices wrote separately to explain their views.
Barrett did not.
The court's action was a victory for the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox
Jewish synagogues that had sued to challenge state restrictions announced by
Cuomo on Oct. 6.
The Diocese of Brooklyn, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, argued houses of
worship were being unfairly singled out by the governor's executive order. The
diocese argued it had previously operated safely by capping attendance at 25%
of a building's capacity and taking other measures. Parts of Brooklyn and
Queens are now in yellow zones where attendance at houses of worship is capped
at 50% of a building's capacity, but the church is keeping attendance lower.
"We are extremely grateful that the Supreme Court has acted so swiftly and
decisively to protect one of our most fundamental constitutional rights --- the
free exercise of religion," said Randy Mastro, an attorney for the diocese, in
Avi Schick, an attorney for Agudath Israel of America, wrote in an email:
"This is an historic victory. This landmark decision will ensure that religious
practices and religious institutions will be protected from government edicts
that do not treat religion with the respect demanded by the Constitution."
Two lower courts had sided with New York in allowing the restrictions to
remain in place. New York had argued that religious gatherings were being
treated less restrictively than secular gatherings that carried the same
infection risk, like concerts and theatrical performances.
There are currently several areas in New York designated orange zones but no
red zones, according to a state website that tracks areas designated as hot