The Supreme Court blocked New York from imposing strict limits on attendance at religious services to combat Covid-19, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett casting the pivotal vote to depart from past cases that deferred to state authorities on public-health measures.
In orders issued shortly before midnight Wednesday, the court, in a 5-4 vote, set aside attendance limits that Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed on houses of worship in areas most severely affected by the coronavirus: 10 people in red zones and 25 in orange zones. Chief Justice John Roberts and three liberal justices dissented.
New York classifies places where coronavirus infections are of increasing severity as yellow, orange or red.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization, alleged that the limits violated their First Amendment rights of religious exercise.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned opinion found that the religious plaintiffs were likely to prevail and, overruling federal courts in New York, suspended the governor’s orders while the litigation proceeds.
The court found it troubling that businesses the state considered essential weren’t subject to the same occupancy limits. Those included “things such as acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities,” the court said.
“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,” the opinion said. But New York’s restrictions “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, in addition to Justice Barrett, made up the majority.
New York had argued that houses of worship were treated less restrictively than activities it considered comparable, such as lectures, concerts, cinemas, sporting events and theaters, which were shut.
Wednesday’s order marked the most dramatic shift since Justice Barrett succeeded Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September. In previous cases where churches contested Covid-19-related occupancy limits, Justice Ginsburg joined with three other liberal justices and Chief Justice Roberts in deferring to the judgment of public-health authorities, over the dissent of four more conservative justices.
Justice Barrett didn’t issue an opinion of her own or join separate concurring opinions issued by fellow Trump appointees Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.
Justice Gorsuch’s opinion stingingly criticized the court’s previous approach.
“It is time—past time—to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques,” he wrote.
Chief Justice Roberts, in dissent, said there was no need to act now because, since the suit was filed, the areas involved had been reclassified as yellow zones, which were subject to a 50% occupancy limit without a numerical limit.
In separate dissents, liberal justices said the court shouldn’t interfere with public-health authorities, who are responding to a pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 Americans, including more than 16,000 in New York City.
“Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan.
Several other religious congregations have filed applications seeking to block occupancy limits since Justice Barrett joined the court last month.