On the eve of the country’s first socially distanced Thanksgiving, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that religious institutions like churches and synagogues would now be excused from some of New York’s harshest COVID-19 restrictions.
While lawyers for Governor Anthony Cuomo argued in court that the strict restrictions placed upon houses of worship were similar to those forced upon more secular institutions, the petitioners, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, insisted that the restrictions were inexorably strict and in their implementation violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Ultimately SCOTUS as stated above sided with the petitioners, stating in their official release that, “Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services”. They continued, “Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area…But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
Although the idea that the Constitution cannot be forgotten during the pandemic is a powerful one, how that Constitution should be interpreted in this unprecedented time, is up for debate. In a lone defense of his vote, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a critical manner of both Cuomo’s decisions as well as the ruling made by Justice John Roberts in May regarding a request from a church in California to restrict the number of people able to attend religious services during the pandemic. It was this ruling which he penned as an example of the Constitution being cut loose during the COVID-19 crisis. However both Justice Stephen Bryer, as well as Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, interpreted how the Constitution would react to the crisis in a different manner, stating that “The Constitution principally entrusts the safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the States.”
Another issue that arose from this court decision in the eyes of those who oppose it, is the idea that the ruling was, in the words of Governor Cuomo, “making a statement that it’s a different court.” Following his loss to SCOTUS, Cuomo pointed out that, “The basic point is you know why does the court rule on an issue that is moot unless — and which they had just decided several months before in other cases..which presented the same argument — 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? You have a different court and I think that was the statement that the court was making.”
Yet however opposed some may be to the decision, it came as a delight to those who were in favor, with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn issuing a statement Thursday morning applauding the court’s decision and the Agudath Israel of America celebrating it as a “historic victory”. It is currently unknown what lighter restrictions may be placed upon the houses in the future.