The Supreme Court late Wednesday ruled against occupancy limits for religious services in New York that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had instituted to stymie the spread of the coronavirus.
In a 5-4 decision, the justices said the governor’s restrictions on the size of congregations at places of worshiped violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the court last month, was the decisive vote siding with the conservative judges on the bench while Justice John Roberts dissented along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The ruling on Wednesday came in response to complaints filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Agudath Israel of America against the three-color coronavirus risk system Cuomo instituted through executive order in early October.
The system limits activities where the virus was spreading, with the most restrictive measures implemented in “red” zones that have the highest risk of infection followed by “orange” and “yellow.”
The religious institutions argued limiting capacity of places of worship to 10 people in “red” zones and 25 people in “orange” zones violated their First Amendment rights, stating the restrictions are harsher for places of worship than secular facilities.
The court said in an unsigned opinion that stemming the spread of the deadly and infectious coronavirus is compelling public interest but that measures affecting places of worship are far more restrictive than measures seen in other cases that have come before the justices and tighter than those applied to worse hit areas.
It continued that less restrict measures have been implemented on places connected to known clusters while there has been “no evidence the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID-19.” It also said less restrictive measures could be enforced on the religious services to stop virus transmission, such as limiting services based on available capacity and not a hard cap.
“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 re-open liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion.
Keep in mind there are three similar emergency applications regarding COVID restrictions on houses of worship pending at SCOTUS: one (outrageous) plea from Louisiana, one from New Jersey and one from California.
— Steven Mazie (@stevenmazie) November 26, 2020
In a dissenting opinion, Roberts said there is no need to grant the injunction relief as following the two places of worship having filed their grievances the governor removed them from the restrictive zones due to dropping cases.
Roberts said the restrictions may violate the First Amendment but there is no reason for them to decide that.
“The governor might reinstate the restrictions. But he also might not. And it is a signifiant matter to override determinations made by public health officials concerning what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic,” he said. “If the governor does reinstate the numerical restrictions the applicants can return to this court, and we could act quickly on their renewed applications.”
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