WASHINGTON (AP) – As coronavir virus cases continue to rise across the country, the Supreme Court late Wednesday temporarily banned New York from imposing certain purchase restrictions on houses of worship in areas severely affected by the virus.
Court action could force New York to reassess these restrictions. But the court’s action will not have a direct impact either, as the two groups suing the restrictions, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Jewish Synagogues in Brooklyn and Queens, no longer belong to them.
The groups sued for restricting attendance at houses of worship in areas designated as red and orange zones, where New York restricted attendance to 10 and 25 people, respectively. But groups are now subject to less restrictive rules because they are now in areas designated as yellow zones.
Judges divide the state by a 5-4 ratio of compliance with restrictions against groups, with a majority of new judge, Amy Coney Barrett. This was the Conservative’s first publicly noticeable vote as a judiciary. The three Liberal judges of the court and Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed.
The judges acted in an emergency while lawsuits challenging the restrictions continued. In an unsigned order, the majority of the court said the restrictions “highlight the house of prayer for particularly harsh treatment”.
The move was a shift for the court. Earlier this year, when Barrett’s liberal predecessor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was a judge in court, judges split it into 5 to 4 to leave capacity constraints on the pandemic affecting the churches of Adventure and Nevada in place.
The court’s action was a victory for the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues, which filed a lawsuit against state restrictions announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo on 6 October.
The Diocese of Brooklyn, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, argued that the house of prayer was unfairly segregated by the governor’s executive order. He noted that businesses in the red zones that were deemed “essential” could remain open from grocery stores to pet stores without capacity constraints, although “non-essential” businesses should be closed. And in the orange zones, most businesses can open without capacity restrictions.
The diocese argued that it had operated safely in the past because it limited 25 percent of the building’s capacity and took other measures. Parts of Brooklyn and Queens are now in the yellow zone, where attendance at houses of worship is 50 percent of the building’s capacity.
The American Agudath Israel Israeli Orthodox Jewish organization, whose synagogues are affected by the restrictions, has also filed a lawsuit. The organization argued that the governor’s restrictions were directed specifically at the Orthodox Jewish community.
New York, for its part, told the court that religious gatherings are treated less strictly than secular gatherings with the same risk of infection, such as concerts and theater performances, which have been completely banned.
Two lower courts sided with New York and allowed restrictions on houses of worship. Currently, state-designated orange zones have multiple areas but no red zones, the state’s website says it monitors designated hotspots.