The US supreme court has ruled against recent New York regulations that had strictly cracked down on religious gatherings in areas affected by COVID-19.
This came as a reversal of an earlier decision by the SCOTUS, which previously refused to lift similar restrictions on California and Nevada churches. Those restrictions were upheld when Chief Justice John Roberts, who is generally considered conservative, joined the court’s four liberal justices in supporting the state restrictions.
However, the court recently gained a conservative-leaning majority with the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, following the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg. This new court structure ruled on New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo limiting Christian churches, synagogues and religious temples to 10 or 25 worshipers in hard-hit areas. Despite Justice John Roberts and the three liberal justices dissenting, the court ultimately ruled against the restrictions 5-4, saying that it violated the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause.
“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the court’s majority opinion wrote. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
In the previous cases, the conservative justices had written 24 pages arguing that churches were not being treated fairly or equally with public assemblies, which was, in their view, a violation of the US constitution’s First Amendment.
“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 colour-coded executive edicts that re-open liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques,” wrote Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The New York restrictions, which were announced back in October, were initially challenged by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, as well as the Orthofox Jewish community of Agudath Israel. Both groups claimed that Cuomo’s order unfairly targeted places of worship while setting secular institutions to a lower standard and allowing businesses to operate freely.