The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in favor of a Catholic diocese and an Orthodox Jewish group, temporarily blocking New York’s COVID-19 restrictions on houses of worship.
“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the high court said in its 5-4 ruling. “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.”
The court said that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America are likely to succeed in their arguments that the restrictions violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and that they would cause irreparable harm. The groups had sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his executive order limiting worship gatherings to 10 people for those in red zones and 25 for those in orange zones.
“… the regulations cannot be viewed as neutral because they single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment,” the court said in its opinion. “They are 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 court also noted that there has been no evidence of outbreaks of the coronavirus in the Catholic churches or Jewish synagogues — which have followed health guidelines — since they reopened.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch said Gov. Cuomo has allowed many businesses to remain open and that “the only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as ‘essential’ as what happens in secular spaces.”
“Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids,” Gorsuch added.
Last month, Cuomo had announced the creation of a “new cluster action initiative” aimed at areas of New York that were considered “hot spots” for infection. Areas were divided into red, orange and yellow zones depending on the number of positive COVID-19 cases.
Cuomo also threatened to close down synagogues and churches that did not comply with his executive orders on social distancing.
Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s three liberal justices in dissenting, noting that there was no need to grant injunctive relief given that the areas where the plaintiffs are located are no longer red or orange zones (they are now yellow zones where people can gather in houses of worship at 50% capacity).
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor called free religious exercise “one of our most treasured and jealously guarded constitutional rights” and 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,” she wrote. “The Constitution does not forbid States from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorably than comparable secular institutions, particularly when those regulations save lives. Because New York’s COVID– 19 restrictions do just that, I respectfully dissent.”
Gov. Cuomo threatens to close churches, synagogues if they don’t ‘agree to follow the rules’ The Christian PostSkip to main content
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, speaks at a press conference about coronavirus, Oct. 5, 2020. | Flickr/Governor Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to shut down churches and synagogues in New York City if they don’t “agree to follow the rules” regarding social distancing and mask use as part of the state’s response to COVID-19.
At a press conference on Monday, Cuomo spoke about his plans to close schools designated as being in New York City “hot spots” and issued a warning to churches and synagogues in those same areas.
“We know religious institutions have been a problem,” he argued, pointing to a screen showing pictures of Christian and Jewish gatherings. “You don’t see masks. And you see clear violations of social distancing.”
“If you do not agree to follow the rules, then we will close the institutions down. I am prepared to do that,” Cuomo said.
The Twitter account for Satmar Headquarters, a Hasidic Jewish community based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, explained that one of the pictures shown on the screen was not from recent weeks, as Cuomo had insinuated, but was more than a decade old. “This Picture is from the 2006 Funeral of the previous Satmar Grand Rebbe, 14 years ago!”
Joseph Esposito, a parishioner of St. Athanasius Church, Bensonhurst, also raised concerns that Cuomo was unfairly targeting houses of worship.
“It’s ridiculous. It absolutely makes no sense,” Esposito told The Tablet. “We go out of our way to make sure it is safe. The churches have been doing the right thing. We are being punished for our hard work. And why this is being done by ZIP code makes no sense. What if you live in one neighborhood and go to church in another?”
Cuomo listed his requirements for churches, adding: “If we’re going to keep religious institutions open, it can only be with two conditions. One, the community must agree, whether it’s the Jewish community, whether we’re talking about black churches, whether we’re talking about Roman Catholic churches, the religious community has to agree to the rules and they have to agree that they are going to follow the rules. And they have to agree that they are going to be a full partner in the enforcement of the rules.”
“If you do not agree to enforce the rules, then we’ll close the institutions down,” he warned. Cuomo said that the second condition for keeping religious institutions open required strict enforcement of social distancing rules and capacity limits: “If the rule is no more than 50% of the people in a black church, I want someone at the door when 50% enter the church, a person there who says to the pastor, you agree to follow the rules. That’s 50%. That’s it or we close it down.”
Toward the end of the press conference, Cuomo said he would be meeting with the Orthodox community on Tuesday to “see if they will agree to live and abide by the rules and advocate compliance.” He vowed to “take action” if Orthodox Jewish leaders did not agree to his demands.
On March 27, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio first warned that churches and synagogues would be permanently shut down if they did not adhere to the city’s lockdown orders.
In response, religious liberty advocates said de Blasio’s threat was “unconstitutional.”
“This type of religious hostility is what fuels non-compliance because it reveals a motive beyond public safety,” Tony Perkins, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Family Research Council, said at the time.
De Blasio did not relent, however, and on April 28 he lodged a similar threat against the Orthodox Jewish community, informing them on Twitter: “I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping the disease and saving lives. Period.”
Fox News opinion host Tucker Carlson played a clip of Cuomo’s comments from Monday’s press conference on his show Monday night, where he said of Cuomo: “Who do you think you are, God? You’re not, you’re some stupid governor of a declining state.”
Carlson, who has been a critic of the ongoing lockdowns and restrictions on businesses imposed by state and local governments in response to the novel coronavirus, said: “In the country we lived in, in January, we had a First Amendment that said the government will not get in the way of your exercise of your religion.”