On November 25, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ‘Cluster Action Initiative’ unfairly targeted religious organizations and blocked him from reinstating strict limits on attendance in the future. For conservatives and libertarians concerned about excessively rigid state policies that undermine their constitutional right to religious freedom, the outcome of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo is welcome news.
Due to the rising cases of coronavirus throughout the country and New York’s abundance of hotspots, Gov. Cuomo announced a new initiative on October 6 to counter the spread of the virus. His policies on essential businesses and gatherings are some of the strictest in the country. Cuomo has divided New York into color-coded zones: red and orange indicate a high number of cases and yellow indicates a low number of cases. The restrictions by each cluster zone category are as follows:
The restrictions placed on houses of worship were the most controversial aspect of the initiative, leading the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel to challenge them in court. The organizations were not challenging basic precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing, but, rather, the limit on the number of worshippers allowed in the space at one time. Regardless of the size of a church or synagogue, red zones only allowed a maximum of 10 people to gather together for religious purposes. The Diocese and Agudath contested these restrictions on the basis of their freedom of religious practice guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The Court blocked Governor Cuomo from re-enforcing these restrictions, primarily because houses of worship were treated more harshly than secular businesses. According to the Court, ‘tailored restrictions’ are a legitimate exercise of the state’s authority, but New York’s restrictions on religious worship were inappropriate and posed a threat to the First Amendment.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Gorsuch writes, “So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?”
Other states have imposed similarly strict guidelines regarding the maximum capacity in houses of worship. California and Nevada went to the Supreme Court over the summer in South Bay Pentecostal Church v. Newsom and Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, respectively. The Court argued that those states’ guidelines were constitutional. However, the restrictions of both states were much more reasonable than the restrictions set by Gov. Cuomo.
Additionally, while there are still limitations on secular businesses in New York’s red zones, there is no cap limiting the number of people. Churches and synagogues could set such caps themselves as private businesses are doing, but there is a clear form of discrimination against religious organizations. Most churches and synagogues affected by the restrictions could fit at least 400 people at any given time; it is absurd to herald the government for only allowing 10 people at a time in such enormous houses of worship.
Chief Justice Roberts joined with Justices Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor in dissent, arguing that, while the restrictions may threaten the First Amendment, the Governor revised the restrictions after being challenged in lower courts (which sided with the state). Additionally, he wrote, “It is 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.” However, he welcomed plaintiffs to challenge the state again if Cuomo reimposed such restrictions.
Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan’s dissents focused on the state’s right to impose restrictions in the face of a pandemic and emphasized a continuity between South Bay and Calvary and Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. According to the three justices, there was no unjust or illicit discrimination nor was there a divide between the treatment of secular institutions and the treatment of religious organizations. Sotomayor wrote, “The Constitution does not forbid States from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorably than comparable secular institutions, particularly when those regulations save lives. Because New York’s COVID-19 restrictions do just that, I respectfully dissent.”
The Supreme Court’s decision helps to protect constitutional rights during this crisis. As Gorsuch wrote, “[G]overnment is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis.”
The Court did not strike down a multitude of controversial and seemingly-draconian policies, but they cut out certain areas of the executive order that legitimately posed a threat to the religious freedoms of the plaintiffs. The ruling is not a cure to authoritarian policies, but it makes it clear that governors and state legislatures need to respect religious liberty when deciding how to respond to the coronavirus.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.