High Court Blocks NY Coronavirus Boundaries at Places of Worship
WASHINGTON (AP) – As coronavirus cases rise again across the country, the Supreme Court on Wednesday night banned New York City from applying certain limits to church and synagogue attendance in areas designated as hard-hit by the virus.
The judges were divided 5-4 with new judge Amy Coney Barrett in the majority. It was the Conservative’s first publicly discernible vote as a judge. The three Liberal justices of the court and Chief Justice John Roberts were dissenting.
This decision was a change for the court. Earlier this year, when Barrett’s Liberal predecessor Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg was still on the court, judges split 5-4 to leave in place pandemic capacity restrictions affecting churches in California and from Nevada.
Court action on Wednesday could push New York to reassess its restrictions on places of worship in areas designated as virus hotspots. But the impact of the court’s action is also softened as Catholic and Orthodox Jewish groups who have filed a lawsuit to challenge the restrictions are no longer subject to it.
The Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America have churches and synagogues in areas of Brooklyn and Queens previously designated as Red and Orange Zones. In these red and orange zones, the state had capped attendance at places of worship at 10 and 25 people, respectively. But these particular areas are now designated as yellow areas with less restrictive rules that no group has contested.
Judges acted urgently, temporarily banning New York City from enforcing restrictions against the groups while their prosecutions continue. In an unsigned notice, the court said the restrictions “reserved places of worship for particularly harsh treatment.”
“Members of this Court are not experts in public health, and we must respect the judgment of those who have particular expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in the event of a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively banning many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, ”the opinion said.
The notice noted that in red zones, while a synagogue or church cannot admit more than 10 people, businesses deemed “essential”, from grocery stores to pet stores, can remain open without capacity limits. And in the orange zones, with synagogues and churches capped at 25 people, “even non-essential businesses can decide for themselves how many people to admit.”
Roberts, a dissenter, wrote that there was “just no need” for the court’s action. “None of the places of worship identified in the nominations are now subject to fixed number restrictions,” he said, adding that the 10 and 25 person caps in New York “seemed unduly restrictive.”
“The governor could reinstate the restrictions. But it also might not be. And it is important to override decisions made by public health officials about what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic, ”he wrote.
Roberts and four other judges wrote separately to explain their views. Barrett didn’t.
The court action was a victory for the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues who filed a lawsuit to challenge state-imposed restrictions announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo on October 6.
The Brooklyn Diocese, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, argued that places of worship were unfairly singled out by the governor’s decree. The diocese argued that 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 areas where worship is limited to 50% of a building’s capacity, but the church is keeping attendance at a lower level.
“We are extremely grateful to the Supreme Court for acting so quickly and decisively to protect one of our most fundamental constitutional rights – the free exercise of religion,” said Randy Mastro, lawyer for the diocese, in a statement.
Avi Schick, an attorney for Agudath Israel of America, wrote in an email: “This is a historic victory. This landmark decision will ensure that religious practices and religious institutions are protected from government decrees that do not treat religion with the respect constitutionally required.
Two lower courts sided with New York in allowing the restrictions to continue. New York had argued that religious gatherings were treated less restrictively than secular gatherings which posed the same risk of infection, such as concerts and theatrical performances. An email sent early Thursday by the Associated Press to the governor’s office requesting comment was not immediately returned.
There are currently several areas in New York City designated as orange areas but no red areas, according to a state website that tracks areas designated as hot spots.