Supreme Court rules against New York’s restrictions on religious gatherings in COVID hotspots

NEW YORK (WCBS 880/AP) — The Supreme Court late Wednesday barred Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York State from enforcing certain COVID-19 restrictions on places of worship.

The justices split 5-4, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the majority, ruling New York’s rules limiting religious gatherings in orange and red zone throughout the state were too restrictive.

The supreme court had decided similar cases earlier this year out of California and Nevada, voting in 5-4 in favor of the religious restrictions, but since then the court's membership has changed.

“Now, we see a different split, now we see the court breaking 5-4, at least in this case, against those restrictions,” says Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson.

The challenge had come from the Roman Catholic Diocese Of Brooklyn, along with an Orthodox Jewish organization and two synagogues.

They claimed Cuomo's orange and red zone restrictions had singled out religion and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court agreed.
In red and orange zones, New York had capped attendance at houses of worship at 10 and 25 people, respectively.

“We have at least five members of the court who are very concerned about any infringements on religious rights, even when those infringements are made for reportedly health and safety concerns,” Levinson said.

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.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote liquor stores and bike shops shouldn't be allowed to open while churches, synagogues, and mosques are shuttered.

Chief Justice John 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.”

Gov. Cuomo in a conference call with reporters Thursday said, “It’s irrelevant from any practical impact, because the zone that they were talking about has already been moot—it expired last week."

“So I think this was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and politics," the governor added of the decision. "It doesn’t have any practical effect.”

The governor stressed that all rules are to "keep people safe" and that New York is looking to find a balance as COVID cases continue to rise during the holiday season.

Randy Mastro, an attorney for the Diocese of Brooklyn said he was pleased with the outcome of the case.

“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,” he said in a statement.

(© 2020 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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