New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against his COVID-19 restrictions on houses of worship, downplaying the decision as “irrelevant” and suggesting the top court’s position on the issue reflects its partisan leanings after the Trump administration placed three conservative justices on the bench.
In a 5-4 decision on Wednesday, the court ruled against Cuomo’s tightening of restrictions on participation in religious services, which imposed 10- and 25-person capacity limits in churches and other places of worship in parts of New York where cases of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus were rising. The case was the first in which the vote of newly appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett proved decisive, with the court determining that such curbs violated the First Amendment right of religious freedom and arguing that Cuomo’s restrictions “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”
While Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s three liberal justices in dissent, he wrote that the 10- and 25-person caps “do seem unduly restrictive,” but argued that there was “simply no need” for the court to rule on the matter as no houses of worship that were identified in the lawsuit under consideration by the Supreme Court were subject to Cuomo’s restrictions.
The lawsuit, brought against Cuomo by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Orthodox Jewish synagogues, argued that the restrictions violated the constitutional right of religious freedom.
Cuomo reacted to the ruling on Thursday, telling reporters on a conference call that the Supreme Court decision is “irrelevant of any practical impact” because the restrictions have already been removed.
Rather than having a material effect, Cuomo said the Supreme Court’s decision instead sought to make an ideological point.
“Why rule on a case that is moot and come up with a different decision than you did several months ago on the same issue?” Cuomo asked during the conference call. “You have a different court. And I think that was the statement that the court was making.”
“It’s more illustrative of the Supreme Court than anything else,” he added.
Cuomo was cited by ABC7 as saying that he “fully respects religion” and that his decision on imposing caps was to keep people safe amid the pandemic.
The caps on religious attendance were part of an executive order Cuomo issued on Oct. 6, which imposed different levels of restriction for different zones. The day after it was issued, Cuomo said “religious institutions have been a problem” because they hold “super spreader events.”
Businesses designated as essential were exempt in every zone, including retail shopping, factories, shelters, airplane travel, and numerous other activities typically involving crowds of people in confined spaces.
Thomas More Society special counsel Christopher Ferrara said the Supreme Court stated that “governors can no longer use a public health emergency as a pretext for dictates shutting or severely restricting the use of houses of worship while secular businesses and activities they deem ‘essential’—and even certain favored ‘non-essential’ secular businesses and activities—are not subjected to the same draconian restrictions.”
“Religious liberty has been rescued from the brink of extinction in the name of COVID-19, a virus with a 99.8 percent survival rate,” Ferrara said.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, hailed the court’s decision in a tweet: “I’d like to congratulate @BpDiMarzio and the @BrooklynDiocese on their victory for religious freedom in the U. S. Supreme Court. Our churches are essential. While we have been and will continue to adhere to all safety protocols to protect our communities, it is also important to protect that fundamental Constitutional right, religious liberty.”
The Supreme Court’s decision marks a departure from its recent hands-off rulings giving states free rein to limit constitutional rights while combating COVID-19.
Janita Kan, Mark Tapscott, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.