(JTA) — The Supreme Court blocked government restrictions on houses of worship imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a late-night ruling Wednesday.
Deciding two cases at once — one brought by Agudath Israel, an umbrella organization representing haredi Orthodox Jews, and one brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn — the court ruled that restrictions placed on New York’s “red zones” with high COVID test positivity rates unfairly discriminated against houses of worship.
The decision, which split 5-4, was the first in which Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed last month, gave the conservatives a majority. The conservative justices were convinced by the argument that pandemic restrictions should not be stricter for religious institutions than for secular ones.
“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,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion.
Both petitions were brought after parts of Brooklyn were made into “red zones” under a state plan implemented last month. In red zones, houses of worship are only allowed to have up to 10 people attending services at once, regardless of the capacity of the space. In orange zones, where restrictions are slightly less strict than in red zones, services are capped at 25 attendees. While nonessential businesses were shuttered in red zones, those that were allowed to remain open were not subject to the same capacity limits as houses of worship.
The liberal justices argued that the restrictions did not constitute religious discrimination, with Chief Justice John Roberts noting that it would be “a significant matter” to overturn restrictions meant to safeguard public health during a pandemic.
Agudath Israel brought its case to the court after a federal judge in New York ruled against it. The two synagogues named in the lawsuit are no longer subject to the restrictions because their neighborhoods no longer have especially high test positivity rates, a fact that two of the dissenting justices cited in their opinion. Still, the group said it was grateful for a ruling that could set a new precedent for religious liberty cases in the country.
“This is an historic victory,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president, in a statement Thursday. “This landmark decision will ensure that religious practices and religious institutions will be protected from government edicts that do not treat religion with the respect demanded by the Constitution.”
This was not the only case where Orthodox groups have argued that pandemic restrictions on worship were unconstitutional.
Earlier this year, three Orthodox men and two Catholic priests sued New York officials over limitations on attendance at synagogue services that were imposed at the beginning of the pandemic, arguing that restrictions should not be stricter for houses of worship than for other gathering places, like businesses. The judge in that case blocked the state from enforcing the stricter rules on houses of worship.
An Orthodox organization representing summer camps tried suing the state over its restrictions on camp this summer, also arguing that the restrictions constituted religious discrimination. (The camp operators group has ties to Agudath Israel.) The judge ruled against the camp operators, saying the religious discrimination argument was not compelling.