In a major victory for religious congregations, delivered late on Thanksgiving Eve, the United States Supreme Court blocked the state of New York from implementing gathering restrictions that the Court ruled discriminate against religious congregations.
Governor Andrew Cuomo had issued an executive order categorizing certain businesses as neutral but restricting religious service attendance in designated COVID-19 zones to no more than 10 or 25 people. Essential businesses included acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, garages, factories, and all transportation facilities. The Court noted that even businesses categorized as “non-essential” “may decide for themselves how many persons to admit.”
The restrictions specifically singled out religious congregations, so the Court applied the higher “strict scrutiny standard” which states that the restrictions must be 1) narrowly tailored and 2) demonstrate a compelling state interest. The Court made note of the fact that large stores next door to churches could have hundreds of shoppers present while the congregations were limited to 10 to 25 people.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America filed for injunctive relief against the restrictions. Right after they filed, Governor Cuomo promptly changed the restrictions to no more than 50% of their capacity by changing their zones’ classification and asked that the Court find the issue to now be moot. The Court, however, noted that if the zones were reclassified, and it happens without notice, the congregations would need to close again.
The main holding in the 5-4 decision is unsigned, but several justices submitted separate concurrences or dissents.
The temporary injunction will be in place as the matter is heard at the Second Circuit, and will then likely go back to the Supreme Court for a trial on the merits. The ruling is narrow in that it only addresses the orders of the Governor of New York that singled out religion, but it signals what the majority thinks of the restrictions and the decision will likely be confirmed once the full case reaches the Court soon.