The Supreme Court’s new conservative majority late Wednesday night sided with religious organizations in New York that said they were illegally targeted by pandemic-related restrictions imposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to combat spiking coronavirus cases.

The 5 to 4 order was the first show of solidified conservative strength on the court since the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who replaced liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The decision differed from the court’s previous practice of deferring to local officials on pandemic-related restrictions, even in the area of constitutionally protected religious rights.

“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the unsigned opinion granting a stay of the state’s orders 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.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. had been the pivotal member of the court in previous emergency applications that sought either relief from virus-related restrictions, dissented, along with the court’s three liberal members.

He noted that while the court was considering the petitions from the religious groups, Cuomo (D) had eased the restrictions, and there was no need for the court to intervene at this time.

“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,”
Roberts wrote for himself.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court was intervening where it should not.

“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.”

The issue has divided the court before.

In past cases, Roberts agreed with conservative justices who turned down petitions from prisoners seeking intervention, allowing local corrections officials to set the rules for dealing with the virus.

But Roberts sided with the liberals, when Ginsburg was alive, to leave in place restrictions in California and Nevada that imposed severe limits on in-person services at houses of worship.

In the California case, Roberts wrote that fast-changing conditions meant the courts should defer to local officials charged with protecting the public. They “should not be subject to second-guessing by an unelected federal judiciary, which lacks the background, competence and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people,” he wrote.

But the court’s more conservative justices said it violated the Constitution for local officials to impose more drastic restrictions on houses of worship than on businesses considered essential.

In a speech to the Federalist Society earlier this month, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. amplified his objections, saying the pandemic “has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty.”

He continued: “This is especially evident with respect to religious liberty. It pains me to say this, but in certain quarters religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Jewish organizations led by Agudath Israel challenged Cuomo’s system of imposing drastic restrictions on certain neighborhoods when coronavirus cases spike.

Under Cuomo’s plan, in areas designated as “red zones,” where the virus risk is highest, worship services are capped at 10 people. At the next level, “orange zones,” there is an attendance cap of 25. The size of the facility does not factor into the capacity-limit.

The diocese said in its petition that the plan subject “houses of worship alone” to “onerous fixed-capacity caps while permitting a host of secular businesses to remain open in ‘red’ and ‘orange’ zones without any restrictions whatsoever.”

“The result is that Target and Staples can host hundreds of shoppers at a time, and brokers can spend 40 hours per week working and hosting customers in poorly ventilated office buildings, but Catholics cannot attend a 45-minute Mass,” the petition said.

Cuomo said in announcing the restrictions that failure by some orthodox Jewish groups to abide by lesser restrictions turned the surrounding neighborhoods into “hot spots,” where temporary drastic measures were needed.

Agudath Israel, which describes itself as an “umbrella organization for Orthodox Jewry,” said Cuomo’s own words show why the restrictions are unconstitutional.

“This case is the first time in living memory where a state governor has drawn targets on a map over neighborhoods of a discrete religious minority” to allay “the majority’s ‘fears’ that this minority was deepening a national crisis,” the group said in a petition to the Supreme Court.

“This court should not permit such remarkable scapegoating of a religious minority to stand.”

New York responded that the restrictions are temporary and changing based on conditions. When coronavirus cases spike, the restrictions are put in place, and then removed when conditions improve.

For instance, it said the designations had been changed since the organizations filed petitions with the Supreme Court.

“At this time, there are no red or orange zones in Brooklyn or in Queens — or indeed anywhere in New York City — only yellow zones,” the state said in its response. None of the churches or synagogues face the toughest restrictions.

And the restrictions are lessened for houses of worship in other zones. In the next level, “yellow zones,” nonessential gatherings are limited to 25 people, but houses of worship are restricted to 50 percent of capacity — more than what the diocese even requested.

Actually, the state argued, it has opted to treat religion more favorably.

“Rather than prohibit houses of worship located in red and orange zones from hosting gatherings altogether, [Cuomo’s order] allows such gatherings to occur, subject to limits on their size,” the brief said.

“The order thus accords preferential treatment to religious gatherings in houses of worship, as compared with secular activities that present a similar or greater degree of risk of COVID-19 spread.”

Lower courts sided with the state, denying the emergency relief sought by the religious groups.

The cases are The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo and Agudath Israel v. Cuomo.

The most important news stories of the day, curated by Post editors and delivered every morning.

By signing up you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like

Ohio governor and lawmakers face choice on gun control laws

Sunday’s mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, which left at least nine dead and 27 wounded, has brought greater attention to possible gun law reforms in the Buckeye state. Jeremy Pelzer, a politics reporter for, points to Gov. Mike DeWine’s…

Spending on UK’s final European elections revealed

The Brexit Party outspent the Conservatives and Labour in the UK’s final elections to the European Parliament last year, figures show. Nigel Farage’s party, which topped the polls with 31% of the total vote, spent £2.609m in the four months…

Utah 2020 election results

There are six electoral votes at stake in Utah in the presidential race. Utah, along with four other states, held predominantly mail-in elections before the pandemic. The state started implementing the majority vote-by-mail system in 2012. State Significance Utah is…

What’s the status of a second $1,200 stimulus check?

Hopes for another large round of federal assistance for Americans hurt by the coronavirus pandemic are reviving, with President-elect Joe Biden calling on Congress to “come together and pass a COVID-relief package.” With many pandemic aid programs running out of funding…