The United States Supreme Court has stepped in to prohibit further Covid-19 restrictions from being imposed on churches in New York.
This is the first significant decision that has been swayed by the court's latest conservative appointee, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed to the bench last month amid a flurry of press coverage about her Catholic faith. The ruling, which concerned New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's sweeping new attendance restrictions on religious gatherings across the state, was decided 5-4 with Justice Barrett in the majority.
"Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten," the court said in its Wednesday night decision, siding with a legal challenge lodged by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn against Gov Cuomo over the restrictions. "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."
The opinion added that churches were being "singled out" by the restrictions, which did not apply to other places of business including acupuncture facilities and other services that the court insisted were not "essential".
The new measures “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment" the majority opinion read.
In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Roberts, a liberal, argued that it was "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".
"According to experts, the risk of transmission is higher when people are in close contact with one another for prolonged periods of time, particularly indoors or in other enclosed spaces," Breyer wrote. "The nature of the epidemic, the spikes, the uncertainties, and the need for quick action, taken together, mean that the state has countervailing arguments based upon health, safety, and administrative considerations that must be balanced against the applicants’ First Amendment challenges."
The restrictions on churches in New York were originally announced back in October, prompting a legal challenge against the state.
"The governor openly admitted that his executive order is a ‘blunt’ policy ‘being cut by a hatchet,’” lawyers for the diocese wrote, as reported by USA Today. “The pandemic alone cannot justify overbroad, untailored closure orders of indefinite duration directed at all ‘houses of worship’ that in another time would plainly be found to violate the Constitution.”
Washington University law professor John Inazu remarked on Twitter that this was "the first time [the Supreme Court] has granted such relief during the pandemic".
Inazu expressed some concerns that the "public messaging about the Court’s decision might fuel broader culture wars" and bolster pastors like John MacArthur in claiming that there is "no pandemic". Despite this, Inazu said that he still agreed with core tenets of the ruling.
"I think the Court’s conclusion is correct and makes some important observations," he said, "including that these orders cause irreparable harm because they involve restrictions of First Amendment freedoms, and that virtual worship is not a constitutionally sufficient alternative."
Governor Cuomo shrugged off the ruling, saying it was "really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and its politics".
"It doesn't have any practical effects," he added, noting that the Brooklyn restrictions in question were no longer in place anyway. "It didn’t affect our mass gathering rules," he said. "It didn’t mention those... it didn’t mention the overall limits." Cuomo said the case will now go back to a lower court.
New York has recorded over 650,000 cases of Covid-19, with 35,000 deaths.