By Michael Haynes
In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court has ruled against New York Governor’s restrictions on places of worship, blocking the governor from enforcing the limits against religious buildings and places of worship. Newly appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett is said to have cast the pivotal vote that made this case depart from previous cases.
In October, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued restrictions that severely affected places of worship, limiting the capacity to sometimes as little as ten people, no matter the size of the building. Cuomo decreed that places of religious worship would be fined $15,000 if they acted in violation of the new rules.
Two Orthodox Jewish synagogues and their parent organization also filed suit for the same reason.
The Diocese of Brooklyn stated in its papers that churches in the diocese, “have operated safely for months now, strictly adhering to existing government guidelines and unquestionably protecting their parishioners from any spread of COVID-19.”
It added, “the Governor’s new restrictions go way too far, infringe way too much, and have no legitimate basis, as applied to the Diocese’s churches,” noting that Cuomo himself had admitted that his laws would impact places of worship most.
The diocese mentioned that other “essential businesses can remain open without any capacity limitations whatsoever, and in the orange zones, even most non-essential businesses can remain open without any capacity limitation.” The term “essential business” is “a broad category that includes everything from grocery stores to pet shops to accounting and payroll offices.”
Such “express targeting of religious practice for unwarranted, disparate treatment – including the very ‘physical acts that constitute the free exercise of religion’,” constitutes a violation of the First Amendment, the Diocese of Brooklyn said.
However, in a ruling late last night, the Supreme Court blocked Cuomo’s limits of places of worship, stating that “the regulations cannot be viewed as neutral because they single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”
Cuomo’s laws were described as: “far more restrictive than any COVID–related regulations that have previously come before the Court, much tighter than those adopted by many other jurisdictions hard-hit by the pandemic, and far more severe than has been shown to be required to prevent the spread of the virus at the applicants’ services.”
The ruling added that by violating the First Amendment rights, “There can be no question that the challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm.”
“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” wrote the Supreme Court. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
After the lawsuits were filed, Gov. Cuomo did in fact change the classification of the areas, so that churches and synagogues affected in the lawsuit could hold up to 50% of the maximum numbers. This moved Chief Justice Roberts to dissent and say that there was “simply no need” to grant injunctive relief at the current time.
However, the majority ruled that “There is no justification for that proposed course of action. It is clear that this matter is not moot.”
The court ruled 5-4 in the matter, with Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissenting.
Justice Sotomayor even suggested that the ruling in favour of the Diocese of Brooklyn, “will only exacerbate the nation’s suffering.”