The Supreme Court rejects the COVID restrictions on New York houses of worship

Conservative judges at the Supreme Court first set out to block the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions late on Wednesday, ruling that New York’s attempt to control rapidly spreading infections in churches and synagogues violates constitutional religious freedoms.

Newly seated Justice Amy Coney Barrett gave a key vote in 5-4 orders made before midnight.

Attorneys at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn and several Orthodox Jewish congregations sued the governor, arguing that the restrictions violated Amendment 1’s protection of the free practice of religion.

The decisions will not have much immediate effect because Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has already lifted the 25-person limit in Brooklyn last weekend.

Referring to this change, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and three Liberals of the court said there was no longer a reason for urgent appeals.

But five other Conservatives in the court have issued an order drawing the attention of all states to the need to ensure that their efforts to curb the epidemic do not impose restrictions on churches, synagogues and mosques deemed more stringent than businesses or other places where large people number can accumulate.

The court’s decision may soon affect California. Attorneys at Harvest Rock Churches, including several in the Los Angeles area, filed an appeal this week asking the court to lift Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom’s restrictions on indoor church services. Judges until Monday asked state attorneys to respond.

In the New York case, the majority said the Cuomo’s orders were not neutral but “highlighted special houses of worship for particularly harsh treatment”.

“We need to respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But the constitution cannot be disappeared and forgotten even in an epidemic. The restrictions in question here, by effectively banning many from attending religious services, are at the heart of Amendment 1’s guarantee of religious freedom. , ”The court said in an unsigned opinion of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.

“The government should not ignore Amendment 1 in times of crisis,” Neil M. Gorsuch wrote in a separate opinion on Conservative Justice. “Minimum, [the 1st Amendment] prohibits government officials from treating religious practices less favorably than similar secular activities unless they pursue compelling interests and use the least restrictive means available. Yet … recently … some states seem to be ignoring these long-standing principles.

Gorsuch said Cuomo’s order deemed many retail businesses to be essential, including hardware stores, liquor stores and bicycle repair shops.

“It is time – in the past – to make it clear that although the pandemic poses a number of serious challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded implementing regulations that reopen liquor stores and bicycle shops but shuttered churches, synagogues and mosques, “wrote.

Until Wednesday, the Supreme Court dismissed appeals stemming from the pandemic, saying judges should be wary of secondary guesses against state and local officials trying to stop the virus from spreading.

Earlier this year, the court rejected the San Diego Church’s challenge by Newsom to restrict indoor services, as well as Nevada’s similar appeal. Both decisions were made by 5-4 votes, with Roberts and the late liberal judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the majority, and the four remaining conservatives disagreeing.

But Ginsburg’s death in September and Barrett’s replacement changed the majority.

Wednesday’s decision questions were restrictions imposed by Cuomo in response to data showing the spread of COVID-19 clusters in parts of Brooklyn and some other New York districts.

In the most severe “red zone” areas, churches and synagogues were limited to 10 people at a time. Congregations in less severe “orange” zones can count up to 25 people and in “yellow” areas up to 50 people.

The red zone limits were removed after a few weeks, and Cuomo said the restrictions are constantly being re-evaluated based on data showing the spread or retreat of the virus.

While the appeal was pending in the Supreme Court, Cuomo lifted the restrictions in the orange areas of Brooklyn.

Conservative Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh said in a separate opinion that Wednesday’s order was limited to an unusually strict restriction on houses of worship.

“In light of the devastating pandemic, I do not question the power of the state to impose personalized restrictions — even very severe restrictions — on both religious worship and secular gatherings. But the New York restrictions on houses of worship are not tailored to the interests of that particular Amendment 1. ”Kavanaugh wrote.

“New York restrictions on houses of worship are much stricter than the California and Nevada restrictions in question [in earlier decisions] and much stricter than the restrictions imposed by most states. “

Roberts stated in a dissenting opinion that the court should not have granted relief “in the present circumstances”.

“It’s just not necessary. … none of the houses of worship indicated in the applications are subject to fixed numerical restrictions. ”He added, adding that“ it is a significant issue to override the decisions required by public health officials for public safety. amid a deadly epidemic. “

Liberal Judge Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor wrote dissenting arguments arguing that New York’s restrictions were reasonable because they set stricter limits on indoor gatherings where people would be together for an hour, unlike in a retail store. Judge Elena Kagan, a liberal companion, joined both oppositions.

“The Constitution does not prohibit states from responding to public health crises with rules that treat religious institutions the same or more favorably than similar secular institutions, especially when these ordinances save lives,” Sotomayor wrote.

Proponents of religious rights praised the court for intervening.

“It made no sense for synagogues and churches to be worse than pet stores, liquor stores and department stores, especially when Agudath synagogues and Brooklyn parishes carefully and responsibly followed the rules,” said Eric Rassbach, a lawyer at Becket Fund. for religious freedom, who filed one of the appeals. “The Supreme Court has rightly intervened and allowed the worship of Jews and Catholics, as it has for centuries.”

Proponents of church-state separation said they were shocked and surprised by the decisions.

“The Constitution promises that religious freedom is a shield that will protect us – not a sword that will do harm to our communities. It is shocking that the Supreme Court is ignoring this principle, especially in the midst of a worsening pandemic. , Said Rachel Laser, president of the United States, in order to separate the church and the state.

Last month, lawyers in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Brooklyn, arguing that the red and orange borders were unconstitutional because they banned most people from moving to Mass. It was argued that the Cuomo’s order “highlights the houses of worship” because of discriminatory treatment. while banks and retail businesses can remain open. The constraints included rules requiring a mask and social distance.

Several Orthodox Jewish congregations filed a similar lawsuit, claiming that the governor had admitted that he had “targeted” Orthodox Jews with his order and threatened to completely close their synagogues.

State lawyers disputed these allegations, saying the governor’s order treated worship “more favorably” than similar non-religious gatherings. It was noted that cinemas, plays, performances, concerts and gyms were completely closed. They argued that grocery store visits are different because people come and go for a short time instead of sitting together in the same room for an hour.

The federal judge refused to lift the restrictions, and the U.S. District Court for Appeals in the 2nd District upheld that decision with a 2-1 vote. The majority referred to Roberts ’brief opinion in the May case in California, in which he said judges should not replace elected officials who are trying to handle responses to a rapidly changing emergency.

Appellate Judge Michael H. Park, appointed by President Trump, disagreed that the restrictions discriminate against churches and synagogues.

Appeals to the Supreme Court followed on 10 November.

Two days later, Samuel A. Alito, a junior conservative judge speaking in Congress of the Federalist Society, approved the Archdiocese’s legal claims, sharply criticizing the court’s earlier refusal to lift restrictions on indoor services in California and Nevada.

According to him, the pandemic “led to previously unimaginable restrictions on individual freedom,” adding, “Religious freedom is fast becoming a detrimental right.”