Newly minted Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, casted the crucial vote in an order issued on Wednesday just prior to midnight. The order blocked the State of New York from imposing strict limits on attendance at religious services as a coronavirus precaution. The order cast a blow to Governor Andrew Cuomo and his continuous attacks on religious liberty.
No surprise here, but in the 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts and the three liberal justices dissented.
In New York, places are classified into zones based on infection rates: yellow, orange or red – 10 individuals in red zones and 25 in orange zones. Religious institutions have been classified in the red zone.
In the opinion, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America alleged that the limits imposed by Cuomo violated their First Amendment rights. It found that the plaintiffs would likely prevail, it overruled federal courts in New York, and suspended Cuomo’s orders while litigation continues.
New York argued that religious institutions have been treated in a less restrictive manner than other activities it considers analogous such as concerts and sporting events.
Most notably, the Supreme Court found it troubling that New York considered some places essential businesses but didn’t have the same limitations placed on them. Included in that list of businesses were “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 opinion 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.” And the court noted that New York’s restrictions “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
Justice Barrett didn’t issue an opinion of her own. Justice Gorsuch strongly criticized the Court’s previous rulings that tended to leave health-related decisions up to the states including those that troubled conservatives. He stated, “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.”
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that he didn’t see a need to act now while the liberal justices said the Court shouldn’t interfere with authorities of public health.
In their dissents, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote “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.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that since Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the Court, other religious establishments have filed applications to block similar limitations by state leaders.