With the rise of coronavirus cases in the United States, the Supreme Court has banned New York from imposing certain restrictions on attendance at churches and synagogues in areas severely affected by the virus.
Judges split 5-4 late on Wednesday, with Amy Coney Barrett, a believing Catholic, the majority in the first publicly noticeable judicial vote. The three liberals of the court and Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed.
The move was a shift for the court. Earlier this year, when Barrett’s liberal predecessor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was in court, judicial judges split the pandemic-related capacity constraints in place in California and Nevada into 5 to 4.
Court action could encourage New York to reassess restrictions on houses of worship in areas designated as virus hotspots. But the effect of the court’s action is silent because Catholic and Orthodox Jewish groups who are suing for challenging the restrictions no longer belong to them.
The Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath of the United States of America have churches and synagogues in areas previously designated as red and orange zones in Brooklyn and Queens.
In these red and orange zones, the state restricted attendance at houses of worship at 10 and 25, respectively. However, these areas are called the yellow zone, with less strict rules, none of the groups disputed.
Judges acted on an urgency basis and temporarily barred New York from enforcing restrictions on groups while their lawsuits continued. In an unsigned opinion, the court said the restrictions “highlight houses of worship because of particularly harsh treatment”.
“The members of the court are not public health experts and we must respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in the event of a pandemic, the constitution cannot be abolished and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively banning many from attending religious services, are at the heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, ”the opinion said.
The opinion noted that in red zones, although a synagogue or church cannot admit more than 10, businesses deemed “essential” can remain open from grocery stores to pet stores without capacity restrictions. In the orange zones, while synagogues and churches are limited to 25, “even non-core businesses can decide for themselves how many people to admit”.
Roberts wrote as a dissenting opinion that “there is simply no need” for court action.
“None of the houses of worship listed in the applications are subject to fixed numerical limits,” he said, adding that the New York ceiling of 10 to 25 people “seems unreasonably restrictive”.
– The governor can reset the restrictions. But maybe not. And it is an important issue to override the decisions of public health officials that are necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly epidemic, ”he wrote.
Roberts and four other judges wrote separately to express their views. Barrett didn’t.
The court’s action was a victory for Catholic and Orthodox Jewish synagogues, which filed a lawsuit against state restrictions announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo on October 6th.
The Diocese of Brooklyn, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, argued that the house of prayer was unfairly segregated by the governor’s executive order. The diocese argued that it had operated safely in the past by limiting 25% of the building’s capacity and taking other measures.
Parts of Brooklyn and Queens are now in yellow zones, where attendance at houses of worship is 50 percent of the building’s capacity, but the church keeps attendance at a lower level.
“We are extremely grateful that the Supreme Court has acted so quickly and decisively to protect one of our most fundamental constitutional rights, the free practice of religion,” the diocesan attorney said in a statement.
Avi Schick, an attorney at Agudath Israel in the U.S., wrote in an email: “This is a historic victory. This decisive decision ensures that religious practices and religious institutions are protected by government decrees that do not treat religion with the respect required by the constitution.
Two lower courts stood on the side of New York. The state argued that religious gatherings are treated less strictly than secular gatherings with the same risk of infection, such as concerts and theater performances. The governor’s office did not comment immediately.
There are currently several areas in New York where there are orange zones but no red zones, according to a state website that tracks areas designated as hotspots.