According to The New York Times, the Supreme Court voted on Wednesday night to bar restrictions on religious services in New York imposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) to help curb the spread of COVID.
The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the court’s three liberal members in dissent. The order was the first in which the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, played a decisive role.
The court’s ruling was at odds with earlier ones concerning churches in California and Nevada. In those cases, decided in May and July, the court allowed the states’ governors to restrict attendance at religious services.
The Supreme Court’s membership has changed since then, with Justice Barrett succeeding Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September. The vote in the earlier cases was also 5 to 4, but in the opposite direction, with Chief Justice Roberts joining Justice Ginsburg and the other three members of what was then the court’s four-member liberal wing.
The majority said in an unsigned opinion that Cuomo violated First Amendment protections of the free exercise of religion. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion that the governor had given secular activities more favorable treatment than religious ones, The Times reported.
“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,” Justice Gorsuch wrote.
However, Barbara D. Underwood, New York’s solicitor general, had noted that religious services have been shown to pose special risks, saying: “There is a documented history of religious gatherings serving as Covid-19 superspreader events.”
Indoor religious services, Ms. Underwood wrote, “tend to involve large numbers of people from different households arriving simultaneously; congregating as an audience for an extended period of time to talk, sing or chant; and then leaving simultaneously — as well as the possibility that participants will mingle in close proximity throughout.”
Still, she wrote, religious services are subject to fewer restrictions than comparable secular ones. “Among other things, in both red and orange zones, casinos, bowling alleys, arcades, movie theaters and fitness centers are closed completely,” she wrote.
The Times noted that Cuomo’s restrictions on houses of worship were strict:
The restrictions are strict. In shifting “red zones,” where the coronavirus risk is highest, no more than 10 people may attend religious services. In slightly less dangerous “orange zones,” which are also fluid, attendance is capped at 25. This applies even to churches that can seat more than 1,000 people.
The measures were prompted in large part by rising coronavirus cases in Orthodox Jewish areas but covered all “houses of worship.”
Image credit: Screengrabs / C-SPAN / YouTube