In a 5-4 decision, the nation’s highest court said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and other officials cannot enforce occupancy limits set in a previous executive order.
Cuomo had mandated that attendance at religious services remain at 10 people or under in so-called red zones and at 25 or under in orange zones.
New York officials have created a color-coding system to mark what levels they believe the pandemic has affected certain areas.
Lawsuits brought by he Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America triggered the ruling.
“Stemming the spread of COVID-19 is unquestionably a compelling interest, but it is hard to see how the challenged regulations can be regarded as ‘narrowly tailored,’” the Supreme Court said in the unsigned majority 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.”
COVID-19 is the disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus. Most patients recover, but a small percentage die.
The plaintiffs were likely to prevail on First Amendment ground, the court ruled.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Donald Trump appointee, said in a concurring opinion that the government “is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis.”
“At a minimum, that Amendment prohibits government officials from treating religious exercises worse than comparable secular activities, unless they are pursuing a compelling interest and using the least restrictive means available,” he added.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a Trump appointee, also concurred, noting that temporary injunctions were warranted but that the Nov. 25 decisions were not final.
Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett and George W. Bush appointees Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito also voted to block the restrictions from being enforced.
Bush appointee John Roberts, the court’s chief justice, said in a dissenting opinion that “there is simply no need” to grant injunctive relief.
“Numerical capacity limits of 10 and 25 people, depending on the applicable zone, do seem unduly restrictive. And it may well be that such restrictions violate the Free Exercise Clause. It is not necessary, however, for us to rule on that serious and difficult question at this time,” he alleged.
Barack Obama appointees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined with Bill Clinton appointee Stephen Breyer in a separate dissenting opinion.
Breyer wrote that he also believed there is not a need to issue injunctive relief because the parts of Brooklyn and Queens where the Diocese’s churches and the two applicant synagogues are located are no longer within red or orange zones. Cuomo, whose office didn’t respond to a request for comment, had made that argument last week in a court filing.
“The applicants point out that the State might reimpose the red or orange zone restrictions in the future. But, were that to occur, they could refile their applications here, by letter brief if necessary. And this Court, if necessary, could then decide the matter in a day or two, perhaps even in a few hours,” Breyer wrote.
“Why should this Court act now without argument or full consideration in the ordinary course (and prior to the Court of Appeals’ consideration of the matter) when there is no legal or practical need for it to do so? I have found no convincing answer to that question.”