The New York Times reports:
The Supreme Court late Wednesday night barred restrictions on religious services in New York that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had imposed to combat the coronavirus. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the court’s three liberal members in dissent. The order was the first in which the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, played a decisive role.
The court’s ruling was at odds with earlier ones concerning churches in California and Nevada. In those cases, decided in May and July, the court allowed the states’ governors to restrict attendance at religious services. The Supreme Court’s membership has changed since then, with Justice Barrett succeeding Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September. The vote in the earlier cases was also 5 to 4, but in the opposite direction.
The ruling, released just before midnight on Thanksgiving eve, contains several separate opinions and some unusually critical language.
In the main, unsigned opinion, the majority ruled in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America that argued that the restrictions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment because the regulations treated the houses of worship more harshly than comparable secular facilities.
The majority said that the regulations are “far more restrictive than any Covid-related regulations that have previously come before the Court, much tighter than those adopted by many other jurisdictions hard hit by the pandemic, and far more severe than has been shown to be required to prevent the spread of the virus” at the religious services in question.
Sotomayor vigorously disputed the contention that the religious groups were being unfairly discriminated against, arguing that comparisons between religious services and liquor or big-box stores were overly facile because the virus-related health risks posed by what people do in those places are starkly different.
“Unlike religious services … bike repair shops and liquor stores generally do not feature customers gathering inside to sing and speak together for an hour or more at a time,” she wrote.
“Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily.”