BREAKING: Supreme Court Backs Religious Challenge to Cuomo’s Virus Shutdown Order
Justin Haggerty | The Daily Knight
Justice Amy Coney Barrett played a decisive role in the decision, ruling 5 to 4, which took the opposite approach of earlier rulings related to challenges against coronavirus restrictions in California and Nevada.
WASHINGTON D.C. — The Supreme Court late Wednesday night barred restrictions on religious services in New York that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had imposed to combat the coronavirus.
The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the court’s three liberal members in dissent. The order was the first in which the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, played a decisive role.
The court’s ruling was at odds with earlier ones concerning churches in California and Nevada. In those cases, decided in May and July, the court allowed the states’ governors to restrict attendance at religious services.
In an unsigned opinion, the majority said Mr. Cuomo’s restrictions violated the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, in his written opinion, wrote that Mr. Cuomo had treated secular entities and activities more favorably than religious ones, asserting that "It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques."
The Supreme Court's ruling addressed two challenges: one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the other by two synagogues, an Orthodox Jewish organization and two individuals. The legal applications both said Mr. Cuomo’s restrictions violated constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion, and the one from the synagogues added that Mr. Cuomo had “singled out a particular religion for blame and retribution for an uptick in a society wide pandemic.”
Attorneys for the diocese questioned “the fluid nature of these modifications and the curious timing of the governor’s latest modification,” and they urged the court to decide the case notwithstanding the revisions.
In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Roberts, who continues to rule against the constitutional protections for religious liberties, wrote that the court had acted rashly, claiming that while the “numerical capacity limits of 10 and 25 people, depending on the applicable zone, do seem unduly restrictive...,it is not necessary, however, for us to rule on that serious and difficult question at this time.”
In a second dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, both appointed by President Barack Obama, argued that “states may not discriminate against religious institutions, even when faced with a crisis as deadly as this one. But those principles are not at stake today.”
It appears in the dissent that the government's restrictions were not severe enough to infringe on religious liberties; in fact, according to their decision, the "larger question in the two cases was whether government officials or judges should strike the balance between public health and religious exercise."
This ruling arrives after Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s recent speech to a conservative legal group, where he argued that the courts had an "important role to play in protecting religious freedom, pandemic or no."
“Whenever fundamental rights are restricted, the Supreme Court and other courts cannot close their eyes,” Justice Alito asserted, dissenting from the view that “whenever there is an emergency, executive officials have unlimited, unreviewable discretion.”
After failure in appeal, the Supreme Court was requested to step in, attorneys for the diocese argued that its “spacious churches” were safer than many “secular businesses that can open without restrictions, such as pet stores and broker’s offices and banks and bodegas.” An hourlong Mass, the diocese’s brief said, is “shorter than many trips to a supermarket or big-box store, not to mention a 9-to-5 job.”
Indoor religious services, Barbara D. Underwood, New York’s solicitor general wrote, “tend to involve large numbers of people from different households arriving simultaneously; congregating as an audience for an extended period of time to talk, sing or chant; and then leaving simultaneously — as well as the possibility that participants will mingle in close proximity throughout.”
In Christ Crucified and the Most Victorious Heart of Jesus.