US Supreme Court halts enforcement of NY executive order limiting attendance in places of worship

The United States Supreme Court blocked enforcement of an executive order by New York governor Andrew Cuomo restricting attendance in houses of worship due to the Covid-19 emergency.

By Christopher Wells

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a decision on Wednesday night forbidding the state of New York from enforcing an executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo restricting attendance in houses of worship due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cuomo’s order limited the number of people allowed in religious buildings in areas particularly hard-hit by the pandemic: so-called “red” and “orange” zones. The Diocese of Brooklyn and a Jewish organization, Agudath Israel of America, argued that the order discriminated against religious organizations in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“Last night’s decision by the Supreme Court is an important one for religious liberty,” said Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, in a statement issued on Thursday. “While we believe, and the Court agreed, that the ‘hot zone’ restrictions on religious gatherings were unduly harsh, our churches have been otherwise eager partners with the state in protecting the health of our parishioners, clergy, staff, and surrounding communities during this devastating pandemic,” he added. “That will continue, as protecting the vulnerable is a pro-life principle. We are proud of the success we have had in keeping our people safe.”

Wednesday’s order by the Supreme Court stood in contrast to earlier decisions in cases involving churches in California and Nevada. The New York case, like the other two, was decided by a 5-4 majority. On Wednesday, however, newly-appointed Justice Amy Barrett’s vote proved decisive in the Court’s decision to halt enforcement of the New York governor’s order.

Both the Diocese and Agudath Israel had argued that the executive order was discriminatory as it singled out religious organizations for restrictions, while allowing similar secular organizations to operate with fewer or no limitations. Agudath Israel had further argued that Governor Cuomo had specifically targeted Orthodox Jewish groups.

The Supreme Court’s order is unlikely to have immediate effect, as Cuomo had recently reclassified various zones in such a way that neither the Diocese nor Agudath Israel of America is subject to the restrictions. However, the Court’s decision noted that the classification could be changed at any time, and so decided to grant the judicial relief requested.