A gigantic victory for religious liberty late Wednesday night at the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 ruling, the justices told New York Governor Andrew Cuomo he can’t discriminate against religious groups when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions.
Newest justice Amy Coney Barrett gave the majority in this ruling its fifth vote. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the three liberal justices in dissent.
‘Even in a Pandemic, the Constitution Cannot Be Put Away & Forgotten’
The ruling said, “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. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. 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 religious liberty defense group Becket represented Orthodox Jews asking for relief from Cuomo’s restrictions.
Restrictions ‘Very Severe’
Becket Senior Counsel Luke Goodrich reacted, stating, “Biggest takeaway: The Court resoundingly rejects blind deference to Covid-related restrictions on worship. Instead, all governments must recognize the Constitution still controls during a pandemic.”
The Court labeled the restrictions Cuomo has slapped on attendance at religious services “very severe,” pointing out “In red zones, no more than 10 persons may attend each religious service, and in orange zones, attendance is capped at 25.”
The justices said the Covid-19 restrictions certainly aren’t neutral towards religion, “Because they single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”
Churches: Limit of 10; ‘Essential’ Businesses: Unlimited
While religious gatherings in a red zone are limited to 10 or fewer worshippers, the Court pointed out, “Businesses categorized as ‘essential’ may admit as many people as they wish. And the list of ‘essential’ businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential.”
In a concurrence, Justice Neal Gorsuch wrote, “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 shutters churches, synagogues.”
‘Will Cause Irreparable Harm’
The Court ruled, “There can be no question that the challenged restrictions if enforced, will cause irreparable harm.”
The justices acknowledged some worshippers could view services on television. But they wrote, “Such remote viewing is not the same as personal attendance. Catholics who watch a Mass at home cannot receive communion, and there are important religious traditions in the Orthodox Jewish faith that require personal attendance.”
Goodrich pointed out the justices suggested, “New York could have tied attendance to the size of the building rather than imposing a hard cap.”
Why Restrict a 1,000-seat Church to 10 Worshippers?
The ruling spoke about how most of the churches or synagogues involved in this case can seat at least 400 people, in a couple of cases, more than 1,000.
“It is hard to believe that admitting more than 10 people to a 1,000-seat church or 400-seat synagogue would create a more serious health risk than the many other activities that the State allows,” the ruling stated.
Becket senior counsel Eric Rassbach works with the Jewish plaintiffs in this case. He said after the ruling, “Governor Cuomo should have known that openly targeting Jews for a special COVID crackdown was never going to be constitutional. But treating synagogues and churches worse than the pet stores, liquor stores, and department stores also just didn’t make any sense.”
The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan T. Anderson, a leading defender of religious liberties, said on Twitter, “I’m thankful that we have a Supreme Court that won’t allow politicians to ignore the Constitution’s protections of religious liberty.”
Constitution & Court Won’t ‘Sleep Through the Pandemic’
“The Constitution forbids government officials from treating religious Americans like second-class citizens,” remarked Ryan Tucker, Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel. “As the court made clear, New York Gov. Cuomo’s executive order singled out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment, barring many from attending religious services. In light of this ruling, we call on all elected officials to amend any religious discriminatory orders. The First Amendment requires the government to protect the rights of its religious communities.”
Becket’s Goodrich summed up, “This is a HUGE win for religious freedom. All governments are now on notice that they won’t get a free pass when they treat worship worse than secular businesses. Neither the Constitution nor the Supreme Court will sleep through the pandemic.”
Thomas More Society Applauds Supreme Court Slap Down of New York’s COVID Worship Restrictions
(November 26, 2020 – Washington, DC) On November 25, 2020, the United States Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in favor of religious freedom. The act barred New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on worship services in the name of COVID-19 prevention. The Thomas More Society has been fighting these coronavirus-prompted religious violations across the nation, including an ongoing lawsuit against Cuomo on behalf of Catholic and Orthodox Jewish worshippers in New York.
The opinion read, “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. 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.”
Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara applauded the late-night Thanksgiving Eve decision, “The Supreme Court has made it clear that governors can no longer use a public health emergency as a pretext for dictates shutting or severely restricting the use of houses of worship while secular businesses and activities they deem ‘essential’- and even certain favored ‘non-essential’ secular businesses and activities – are not subjected to the same draconian restrictions. What is considered ‘safe’ for grocery stores, liquor stores and massage parlors, must be considered safe for churches and synagogues.”
Ferrara added, “The Court has also ended reliance on the outdated Jacobson decision, a 115-year-old anachronism, which over the past eight months has morphed into a kind of super-precedent for any sort of restriction on constitutional freedoms governors feel like imposing during a public health crisis. Religious liberty has been rescued from the brink of extinction in the name of COVID-19, a virus with a 99.8% survival rate.”
Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch has specifically addressed the gubernatorial COVID plans that have been one of the chief abuses of religious liberty, writing, “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.”
Read about the Thomas More Society’s lawsuit against Governor Cuomo here [https://www.thomasmoresociety.org/new-york-governor-violates-federal-judges-order-defending-religious-freedom/], and find more stories about the Thomas More Society’s defense of religious freedom against unconstitutional COVID orders here[https://www.thomasmoresociety.org/category/newspress-releases/].
About the Thomas More Society
The Thomas More Society is a national not-for-profit law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty. Headquartered in Chicago, Omaha, and Fairfield, NJ, the Thomas More Society fosters support for these causes by providing high quality pro bono legal services from local trial courts all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. For more information, visit thomasmoresociety.org.