Politics

Supreme Court blocks NY from enforcing Covid limits on churches

Pete Williams and Rebecca Shabad
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Police officers stand outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., Oct. 26, 2020.
Stefani Reynolds | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an injunction late Wednesday blocking New York's governor from enforcing 10- and 25-person occupancy limits on religious institutions, granting a request from the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel.

The state had told the court there was no need to act because the restrictions, which were adopted as a way to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, had recently been dialed back.

The court apparently divided 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissenting.

In an unsigned majority opinion, the court said the restrictions would violate religious freedom and are not neutral because they "single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment."

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While religious institutions were affected, businesses categorized as essential could admit as many people as they wish, the court said, and the list of such businesses included acupuncture facilities and others the court said were not essential.

The court said there's no evidence that the organizations that brought the lawsuit have contributed to the spread of Covid-19.

In his dissent, Roberts said he saw no need to take this action, because the state has revised the designations of the affected areas, and none of the houses of worship that sought relief now face numerical restrictions and can hold services up to 50 percent capacity.

Breyer said if the state seeks to reimpose the limits, the plaintiffs can come back to the court. Sotomayor and Kagan said granting the injunction "will only exacerbate the nation's suffering."

Both Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh filed concurrences. Neither Amy Coney Barrett nor Samuel Alito filed separate opinions.

During a briefing call with reporters on Thanksgiving morning, Cuomo shrugged off the court's move.

"The Supreme Court ruling on the religious gatherings is more illustrative of the Supreme Court than anything else .... This was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and its politics. It doesn't have any practical effects," he said.

Cuomo, echoing Roberts' dissent, said that the entire case was moot because the restrictions in the particular zone in Brooklyn no longer exist. He said the case will now go back to a lower court.

"The decision isn't final. Second, it didn't affect our mass gathering rules. So it didn't mention those. It didn't mention the overall limits," said Cuomo, who questioned why the court ruled "on an issue that is moot?"

President Donald Trump reacted Thursday morning by commenting on a tweet from a Supreme Court case tracking site about the ruling. "Happy Thanksgiving," he wrote.