Last week’s Supreme Court ruling against New York’s restrictions on religious organizations sends a message that churches may not be treated as second class citizens, legal experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The Supreme Court sided with religious organizations challenging Cuomo’s coronavirus restrictions the night before Thanksgiving, calling the New York Democrat’s measures “discriminatory” in its injunction for emergency relief.
Conservative justices, including Justice Amy Coney Barrett, sided with religious organizations in the 5-4 ruling, while Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal justices. It was the first time Barrett was a deciding factor as the court’s newest justice after replacing the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg — and Judicial Crisis Network President Carrie Severino said it showed “the critical importance of Justice Barrett’s confirmation.”
Cuomo’s restrictions limited the number of people who can attend religious services to 10 in areas where the threat of coronavirus is highest, regardless of a church or synagogue’s capacity. In areas with slightly less risk, attendance is limited to 25 people.
“The Court’s majority made clear that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause is not to be carelessly trampled upon but rather vigorously protected,” Judicial Crisis Network’s Carrie Severino told the DCNF.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represented the religious organizations in asking the Supreme Court to consider whether Cuomo’s executive order violated the Free Exercise Clause when it “disfavors worship” and “when the official who issued it made clear through unambiguous statements that the order was targeted at a religious minority’s practices and traditions.”
Becket counsel Joe Davis noted to the DCNF that the ruling was important not only in regards to coronavirus restrictions on religious freedom, but also for religious freedom more broadly.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo responds to Supreme Court blocking restrictions on houses of worship: “We know who he appointed to the court, we know their ideology.” pic.twitter.com/XJhp96LBfK
— The Hill (@thehill) November 27, 2020
“This is really the court laying down a marker that the First Amendment does not go away even in the circumstances of this pandemic,” Davis told the DCNF, noting that this is something that has been questioned in legal rulings since March.
“You can’t tell people they have to stay home from church but they can shop,” Davis said.
Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Ryan Tucker also emphasized the disparity between restrictions on houses of worship and restrictions on other businesses, calling it not only “nonsensical” but also “unconstitutional” that “individuals can gather in places that governors deem essential but those same people can’t gather in a religious gathering as well.”
The ruling sends a message to governors and other officials that “they can’t treat the church like a second class citizen,” Tucker added.
In deciding to grant the temporary injunction relieving the religious organizations from Cuomo’s restrictions, the justices looked at how Cuomo’s restrictions might cause irreparable harm to the religious organizations, Heritage Foundation’s Emilie Kao told the DCNF.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn had also filed an emergency application against Cuomo in November, writing that Cuomo’s order “expressly singles out ‘houses of worship’ by that name for adverse treatment relative to secular businesses.
Kao noted that one instance of irreparable harm that the justices noted was the impact of Cuomo’s restrictions on daily Catholic masses.
“Unlike Cuomo,” she said of the justices, “they looked at the restrictions, caps, the size of the buildings.”
Synagogues and cathedrals hold upwards of 1,000 people, Kao noted, and the “arbitrary” limits on the number of those who could gather to worship were “totally unrelated to the size of the buildings.”
Kao, who is the Heritage Foundation’s director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society, emphasized that the ruling will probably influence lower courts, setting the tone for future cases on COVID restrictions and religious freedom.
“There’s a lot of reasons for optimism from the court’s opinion,” Kao added, “but it is a temporary injunction, so it’s not a final decision as to the litigants, but a very encouraging development.”
On Thursday, the Supreme Court also ruled against Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s restrictions on worship services during the coronavirus pandemic.
Justices tossed out an order from a Central District of California court that had upheld Newsom’s restrictions on houses of worship, CBS News reported Thursday. In light of last week’s Supreme Court ruling, the justices sent the dispute back to a lower court for further review.