Thursday, November 26, 2020

Supreme Court Enjoins, Pending Appeal, New York's COVID-19 Capacity Limits On Houses of Worship

The U.S. Supreme Court late last night, in a 5-4 decision, enjoined-- while appeals are pending-- New York's 10 and 25 person occupancy limits on houses of worship in red and orange zones of high COVID infections. In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo, (Sup. Ct., Nov. 25, 2020), in a decision that also applies to Agudath Israel of America v. Cuomo, the Court's per curiam opinion said in part: 

[S]tatements made in connection with the challenged rules can be viewed as targeting the “ ‘ultra-Orthodox [Jewish] community.’ ”... But even if we put those comments aside, the regulations cannot be viewed as neutral because they single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.

In a red zone, while a synagogue or church may not admit more than 10 persons, businesses categorized as “essential” may admit as many people as they wish. And the list of “essential” businesses includes things such as acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities....

[T]here are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services. Among other things, the maximum attendance at a religious service could be tied to the size of the church or synagogue....

Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.

Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion, stating in part:

The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids....

Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical.

Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion arguing that while the restrictions pose serious concerns, the Court should not rule on them because the houses of worship before the Court are no longer in red and orange zones. He also criticized Justice Gorsuch's attack on the dissenters in the case.

Justice Kavanaugh filed a concurring opinion, explaining why he disagrees with Chief Justice Roberts' approach.

Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, dissented, pointing out that the houses of worship are no longer under the challenged capacity limits and saying in part:

The nature of the epidemic, the spikes, the uncertainties, and the need for quick action, taken together, mean that the State has countervailing arguments based upon health, safety, and administrative considerations that must be balanced against the applicants’ First Amendment challenges.

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, filed a dissenting opinion, saying in part:

It is true that New York’s policy refers to religion on its face. But as I have just explained, that is because the policy singles out religious institutions for preferential treatment in comparison to secular gatherings, not because it discriminates against them....

Finally, the Diocese points to certain statements by Governor Cuomo as evidence that New York’s regulation is impermissibly targeted at religious activity—specifically, ... New York’s Orthodox Jewish community.... The Diocese suggests that these comments supply “an independent basis for the application of strict scrutiny.”... I do not see how.... Just a few Terms ago, this Court declined to apply heightened scrutiny to a Presidential Proclamation limiting immigration from Muslim-majority countries, even though President Trump had described the Proclamation as a “Muslim Ban,”....

 New York Times reports on the decision.