Richmond Times-Dispatch

High court rejects N.Y. virus limits on houses of worship


WASHINGTON— With coronaviru­s cases surging again nationwide, the Supreme Court barred New York from enforcing certain limits on attendance at churches and synagogues in areas designated as hard hit by the virus.

The justices split 5-4 late Wednesday night, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the majority. It was the conservati­ve’s first publicly discernibl­e vote as a justice. The court’s three liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.

The move was a shift for the court. Earlier this year, when Barrett’s liberal predecesso­r, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was still on the court, the justices divided 5-4 to leave in place pandemic-related capacity restrictio­ns affecting churches in California and Nevada.

The court’s action Wednesday could push New York to re-evaluate its restrictio­ns on houses of worship in areas designated virus hot spots. But the impact is also muted because the Catholic and Orthodox Jewish groups that sued to challenge the restrictio­ns are no longer subject to them.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Thursday the ruling was “more illustrati­ve of the Supreme Court than anything else” and “irrelevant from any practical impact” given that the restrictio­ns have already been removed.

The Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America have churches and synagogues in areas of Brooklyn and Queens previously designated red and orange zones. In those red and orange zones, the state had capped attendance at houses of worship at 10 and 25 people, respective­ly. But the those particular areas are now designated as yellow zones with less restrictiv­e rules neither group challenged.

The justices acted on an emergency basis, temporaril­y barring New York from enforcing the restrictio­ns against the groups while their lawsuits continue. In an unsigned opinion the court said the restrictio­ns “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”

“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 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 opinion said.

The opinion noted that in red zones, while a synagogue or church cannot admit more than 10 people, businesses deemed “essential,” from grocery stores to pet shops, can remain open without capacity limits. And in orange zones, while synagogues and churches are capped at 25 people, “even non-essential businesses may decide for themselves how many persons to admit.”

Roberts, in dissent, wrote that there was “simply no need” for the court’s action. “None of the houses of worship identified in the applicatio­ns is now subject to any fixed numerical restrictio­ns,” he said, adding that New York’s 10- and 25-person caps “do seem unduly restrictiv­e.”

Roberts and four other justices wrote separately to explain their views. Barrett did not.

The court’s action was a victory for the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues that had sued to challenge state restrictio­ns announced by Cuomo on Oct. 6.

The Diocese of Brooklyn, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, argued houses of worship were being unfairly singled out by the governor’s executive order. The diocese argued it had previously operated safely by capping attendance at 25% of a building’s capacity and taking other measures. Parts of Brooklyn and Queens are now in yellow zones where attendance at houses of worship is capped at 50% of a building’s capacity, but the church is keeping attendance lower.

“We are extremely grateful that the Supreme Court has acted so swiftly and decisively to protect one of our most fundamenta­l constituti­onal rights — the free exercise of religion,” said Randy Mastro, an attorney for the diocese, in a statement.

Avi Schick, an attorney for Agudath Israel of America, wrote in an email: “This is an historic victory. This landmark decision will ensure that religious practices and religious institutio­ns will be protected from government edicts that do not treat religion with the respect demanded by the Constituti­on.”

There are currently several areas in New York designated orange zones but no red zones, according to a state website that tracks areas designated as hot spots.

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