High Court blocks New York virus boundaries at places of worship

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As coronavirus cases rose again across the country, the Supreme Court has banned New York from applying certain limits on church and synagogue attendance in areas designated as hard hit by the virus.The judges split 5-4 on Wednesday night, with new judge Amy Coney Barrett in the majority. It was the Conservatives’ first publicly discernible vote as a judge. The three Liberal justices of the court and Chief Justice John Roberts were dissenting.

The move was a change for the court. Earlier this year, when Barrett’s liberal predecessor Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg was still in court, judges split 5-4 to leave in place pandemic capacity restrictions affecting churches in California and the United States. Nevada.

Court action on Wednesday could push New York to reassess its restrictions on places of worship in areas designated as virus hotspots. But the impact is also mitigated as Catholic and Orthodox Jewish groups who have filed a lawsuit to challenge the restrictions are no longer subject to it.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Thursday the ruling was “more illustrative of the Supreme Court than anything else” and “irrelevant to practice” given that the restrictions have already been lifted.

“Why rule on a moot case and come to a different decision from the one you took several months ago on the same problem?” Cuomo asked on a conference call with reporters. “You have a different court. And I think that was the statement the court made.

The Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America have churches and synagogues in areas of Brooklyn and Queens previously designated as red and orange areas. In these red and orange areas, the state had capped attendance at places of worship at 10 and 25 people, respectively. But these particular areas are now designated as yellow areas with less restrictive rules neither of the contested groups.

Judges acted urgently, temporarily preventing New York from enforcing restrictions against the groups while their lawsuits continue. In an unsigned opinion, the court said the restrictions “distinguish places of worship for particularly harsh treatment.”

“The members of this Court are not experts in public health and we must respect the judgment of those who have particular expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in the event of a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put aside and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively preventing many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, ”the opinion said.

The opinion notes that in the red zones, while a synagogue or a church cannot accommodate more than 10 people, businesses deemed “essential”, from grocery stores to pet stores, can remain open without limit of capacity. And in the orange zones, with synagogues and churches capped at 25 people, “even non-essential businesses can decide for themselves how many people to admit.”

Roberts, a dissenter, wrote that there was “just no need” for the court’s action. “None of the places of worship identified in the requests are now subject to fixed number restrictions,” he said, adding that the 10 and 25-person caps in New York “seem unduly restrictive.”

“The governor could reinstate the restrictions. But he also might not. And it is important to override decisions made by public health officials about what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic, ”he wrote.

Roberts and four other judges wrote separately to explain their views. Barrett did not.

The court action was a victory for the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues who had filed a lawsuit to challenge state restrictions Cuomo announced on October 6.

The Brooklyn Diocese, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, argued that places of worship were unfairly singled out by the governor’s decree. The diocese argued that 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 places of worship is capped at 50% of a building’s capacity, but the church is keeping attendance lower.

“We are extremely grateful that the Supreme Court has acted so quickly and decisively to protect one of our most fundamental constitutional rights – the free exercise of religion,” said Randy Mastro, lawyer for the diocese, in a statement. .

Avi Schick, an attorney for Agudath Israel of America, wrote in an email: “This is a historic victory. This landmark decision will ensure that religious practices and religious institutions are protected against government decrees that do not treat religion with the respect constitutionally required. ”

Two lower courts sided with New York in allowing the restrictions to remain in place. New York had argued that religious gatherings were treated less restrictively than secular gatherings which carried the same risk of infection, such as concerts and theatrical performances.

There are currently several areas in New York City designated as orange areas, but no red areas, according to a state website that tracks areas designated as hot spots.

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