The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday night to temporarily lift restrictions on how many people can attend religious worship services in a 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court’s liberal wing.
The restrictions in an executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo limited services to 10 participants if the county was in the red phase and 25 if it was orange. The ruling said authorities could not enforce the restrictions while the case was being appealed.
Justices in the majority thought the restrictions violated the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. They also pointed out that capacity restrictions on businesses were less severe, which amounted to discrimination.
All three justices nominated by President Donald Trump ruled with the majority in the decision.
Capacity restrictions unconstitutional
Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch blasted Cuomo’s orders in his concurring opinion, saying, “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.”
“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,” he continued. “Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?”
The decision marks a departure for the court from two previous cases that upheld capacity restrictions in worship services in California and Nevada. Those restrictions were less stringent than New York’s, however.
Additionally, the previous rulings were made before Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, when the makeup of the court was different. Now, there is a potential 6-3 conservative split, and even if Roberts sides with the liberal wing, it will end up 5-4.
Roberts on the fence
Roberts and the liberals didn’t necessarily disagree with the majority that the restrictions were permissible, but they didn’t think the court needed to rule on the issue right now because none of the restrictions currently apply.
“Numerical capacity limits of 10 and 25 people, depending on the applicable zone, do seem unduly restrictive,” Roberts wrote, the New York Times reported. “It is not necessary, however, for us to rule on that serious and difficult question at this time.”
“If the governor does reinstate the numerical restrictions the applicants can return to this court, and we could act quickly on their renewed applications,” he said.
Lawyers for the synagogues that brought the suit, however, disagreed, pointing out that Cuomo “retains the unfettered discretion to reimpose those restrictions on them at a moment’s notice.”