WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court placed religious freedom before pandemic precautions Wednesday night, temporarily blocking recent rules in New York that severely restricted gatherings at houses of worship in areas hit hardest by COVID-19.
The court's new, more conservative majority ruled 5-4 that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's limits on churches, synagogues and other houses of worship to 10 or 25 worshipers in hard-hit regions appeared to violate the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause.
"Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten," the court's unsigned majority opinion said. "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."
It was a reversal from earlier actions taken by the high court in response to state restrictions on organized religion during the coronavirus pandemic. The justices previously refused to lift restrictions on churches in California and Nevada, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court's four liberals in upholding state restrictions.
But since then, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and was succeeded by Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, giving conservatives a 6-3 majority. Roberts and the three liberal justices dissented from Wednesday night's ruling.
"It is a significant matter to override determinations made by public health officials concerning what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic," the chief justice said. He noted that the limits have changed even as the court was considering the two challenges, so that churches and synagogues now can hold services at 50% capacity.
But Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch took direct aim at Roberts' earlier opinion in the California case, arguing that ceding authority to elected officials takes judicial modesty too far.
"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," he wrote.
Associate Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan emphasized the pandemic's impact on the nation and New York in particular.
"According to experts, the risk of transmission is higher when people are in close contact with one another for prolonged periods of time, particularly indoors or in other enclosed spaces," Breyer wrote. "The nature of the epidemic, the spikes, the uncertainties, and the need for quick action, taken together, mean that the state has countervailing arguments based upon health, safety, and administrative considerations that must be balanced against the applicants’ First Amendment challenges."
The New York restrictions, announced in October, were challenged by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel, an Orthodox Jewish congreg... (Read more)
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