ALBANY, NY – As the coronavirus epidemic has deepened and darkened in recent months, the nation’s governors have taken increasingly aggressive steps to curb the current outbreak of infections, with renewed and expanded restrictions covering people’s homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship.
These many rules, often adopted by democratic officials and enforced through curfews, closures, and capacity constraints, were resisted by many members of the public, but largely upheld by the courts.
Late Wednesday night, however, the U.S. Supreme Court forcibly entered the arena, signaling its willingness to impose new restrictions on enforcement and emergency orders during a pandemic, at least where constitutional rights are affected.
In its 5-4 decision, the court overturned Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s order restricting the size of religious gatherings in some areas of New York where infection rates have risen. The governor imposed capacity limits of 10 and 25 people on churches and other houses of worship in these areas.
The decision appeared to indicate that some government efforts to curb the pandemic were widespread and that freedoms protected in the name of public health were violated. If unrestricted religious observance and public safety sometimes came into conflict, as maintained by the governor and other civil servants, the court ruled that religious freedom should be won.
Mr Cuomo accused the court of bias, suggesting that the decision reflects the influence of the three Conservative judges appointed by President Trump over the past four years.
“You have a different court, and I think that was the statement made by the court,” Mr Cuomo, a Democrat in the third term, said on Thursday. “We know who he appointed to court. We know their ideology. “
The decision was a thank-you gift to Catholic and Orthodox Jewish leaders who blew up Mr. Cuomo’s rules as a deep and unjust restriction on religious freedom.
“From the beginning, I said that the restrictions imposed by Governor Cuomo were excessive, taking into account neither the size of our churches nor the security protocols that kept parishioners safe,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio Brooklyn said Thursday morning, noting that Catholics the Mass has followed the security protocols of the coronavirus since the virus first appeared in New York in March.
Mr Cuomo insisted the decision had “no practical effect” because restrictions on religious services in Brooklyn and similar Queens and the northern suburbs of the city were eased after the positive test rate in these areas declined.
The direct impact of the case was small, distinguishing between two separate restrictions on participation in houses of worship, regardless of denomination, which Mr Cuomo imposed in early October. These rules were created after attacks by several Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, Queens, and two suburban counties.
Mr Cuomo claims that these epidemics have since been kept under control, largely through measures taken by the court. Mr Cuomo has issued dozens of enforcement orders since the state’s first reported incident in March, and these remain intact, including other restrictions on religious gatherings.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted in a separate opinion that none of the governor’s most severe restrictions were currently in place. Although the capacity constraint of the governor of the houses of worship may have violated the First Amendment, Judge Roberts wrote that it was not necessary for the court to “decide on this serious and difficult issue at this time”.
– The governor can reset the restrictions. But it may not be, ”Justice Roberts wrote, saying“ a significant issue is the override of decisions made by public health officials ”.
Critics of the court’s decision argued that Mr. Cuomo’s actions did not violate religious freedom and that the Supreme Court’s decision could have dangerous public health consequences.
“Freedom of worship is one of our most cherished fundamental rights, but it does not include permission to harm or endanger public health,” said Daniel Mach, director of the Freedom of Religion and Belief Program of the American Civil Rights Association.
Less stringent 25-person capacity restrictions, which were also rejected by a Supreme Court ruling, apply in six other counties, including Richmond County in Staten Island.
According to legal experts, different rules could be challenged by a court ruling. “The decision applies to people in a similar situation,” said Norman Siegel, a constitutional lawyer and former leader of the New York Civil Rights Union. – Applies to all synagogues, churches, mosques, religious environments.
Nevertheless, Beth Garvey, an adviser to Mr Cuomo, said the state believes the court’s opinion only affects restrictions that have already lapsed in Brooklyn, and the rules in the other six zones remain unchanged.
He said officials are “looking around the state in the other zones,” but also suggesting that the state continue to dispute his case in the lower courts.
The decision of the Supreme Court was welcomed by Orthodox Jewish leaders whose communities were at the center of restrictions last month.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, Agudath Israel of America, which also filed a lawsuit to overturn the rules, called the decision a historic decision, saying it “ensures that religious practices and institutions are protected from government regulations. “
The governor’s restrictions led to angry protests in some Orthodox Jewish quarters and even became an issue in the presidential race when proposed by Mr. Trump. On Twitter that the unrest and police response reflect a symbol of the “radical left”. On Thursday, the president tweeted in a report in connection with the Supreme Court’s decision, with a two-word, full-text message: “HAPPY THANK YOU!”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn asked the Supreme Court for action on Nov. 9 after losing lower federal-level challenges, saying Mr. Cuomo’s ordinance “roughly hit” the rights of Catholic parishioners.
The diocese primarily asked the courts for exemption from the so-called “red zones,” where houses of worship were limited to 10 people or 25 percent of the building’s capacity, whichever was smaller. Action has also been successfully requested for ‘orange zones’, where Mr Cuomo has implemented a 25-person limit, or 33 per cent of the capacity limit.
Last week, Bishop DiMarzio said the rules virtually closed the churches in the red and orange zones – some of which can accommodate hundreds of parishioners – which Jewish leaders have also expressed about their synagogue.
Catholic Mr. Cuomo asked for an understanding from the church and Jewish organizations, saying restrictions were needed to curb the second wave of the virus.
In recent weeks, the governor has also announced a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people in private homes and imposed a nationwide 22-hour curfew on bars, restaurants and gyms.
Nevertheless, the second wave has arrived in New York, where nearly 34,000 people have already died. On Thursday, the state received more than 3,000 people in hospital with Covid-19 and reported 67 deaths, the highest daily casualty since mid-June.
The legal debate between the state and religious leaders was sparked by tensions in March over what secular officials see as an important service in a time of crisis.
“We are essential to people’s mental health,” Bishop DiMarzio said last week. “Physical health is important, but we are also indispensable and are not considered essential. And that is why we were led by these restrictions.
Adam Liptak and Rick Rojas reported.