Supreme Court blocks New York coronavirus restrictions at houses of worship

Northeast

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The U.S. Supreme Court has voted to block New York from enforcing limits on attendance at religious intuitions in areas where coronavirus infections have spiked.

The high court ruled 5-4 late Wednesday to back the Christian and Jewish houses of worship challenging COVID-19 restrictions issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month. Though the decision won’t have any immediate effect since the groups that sued are no longer subject to them, it could push New York to reevaluate the measures as cases climb across the country.

This week, the U.S. marked its highest daily COVID-19 death toll in six months, according to the COVID Tracking Project. In New York City, public schools have been closed since the city reached a 3% positivity rate last week.

President Donald Trump’s new appointee Justice Amy Coney Barrett was in the majority on the decision, which also included Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Chief Justice John Roberts opposed, along with the court’s liberal justices: Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The justices acted on an emergency basis while lawsuits challenging the restrictions continued. In an unsigned order, a majority of the court said the restrictions “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”

Gov. Cuomo’s executive order on Oct. 6 shut down non-essential businesses in red zones, or areas where clusters of coronavirus cases were the most severe. It also limited gatherings at religious institutions to 10 people in red zones and 25 in orange zones, where COVID-19 case clusters were determined to be moderately severe.

The Diocese of Brooklyn, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, argued that the governor’s order unfairly singled out houses of worship for more stringent restrictions than essential businesses. It noted that in red zones, businesses deemed “essential,” from grocery stores to pet shops, can remain open without capacity limits, though “non-essential” businesses had to close. And in orange zones, most businesses can open without capacity restrictions.

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.

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization with synagogues affected by the restrictions, also sued. The organization argued the governor’s restrictions targeted the Orthodox Jewish community in particular.

A federal judge in Brooklyn rejected separate requests made by the religious groups on Oct. 9. The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined emergency requests filed by both sets of challengers on Nov. 9.

The Supreme Court’s decision was a shift from two previous cases this year when Barrett’s liberal predecessor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was on the court. The high court turned away similar requests by churches in Nevada and California.

In his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts questioned whether the high court should even rule on such a case since the religious groups are no longer subject to the limits.

“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,” Roberts wrote. “It is not necessary, however, for us to rule on that serious and difficult question at this time. The Governor might reinstate the restrictions. But he also might not. And 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.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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