The Supreme Court’s new conservative majority showed its muscle on Thanksgiving Eve, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett playing a key role in reversing the court’s past deference to local officials when weighing pandemic-related restrictions on religious organizations.
All three of President Trump’s nominees to the court were in the 5-to-4 majority that blocked New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s restrictions on houses of worship in temporary hot spots where the coronavirus is raging.
The court’s most conservative justices distanced themselves from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, Trump’s first nominee, went out of his way to say that lower courts should no longer follow Roberts’s guidance of deference, calling it “mistaken from the start.”
“Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical,” Gorsuch wrote. Rather than applying “nonbinding and expired” guidance from Roberts in an earlier case from California, Gorsuch said, “courts must resume applying the Free Exercise Clause.”
“Today, a majority of the court makes this plain.”
The halt of Cuomo’s orders, which had been allowed to remain in place by lower courts, was the first evidence that Roberts may no longer play the pivotal role he occupied over the past couple of years. He had been at the center of the court, with four consistently more conservative justices and four more liberal ones.
Barrett’s replacement of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg means there are now five members of the court — a majority — more willing to move it quickly in a more conservative direction.
And pandemic-related restrictions on worship services have drawn the ire of the conservatives for months.
They were previously outvoted when Ginsburg was alive, as she and the other liberals joined with Roberts to leave in place restrictions in California and Nevada that imposed limits on in-person services at houses of worship.
In the cases involved in the court’s midnight order Wednesday, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Jewish organizations led by Agudath Israel challenged Cuomo’s system of imposing drastic restrictions on certain neighborhoods when coronavirus cases spike.
Under Cuomo’s plan, in areas designated “red zones,” where the virus risk is highest, worship services are capped at 10 people. At the next level, “orange zones,” there is an attendance cap of 25. The size of the facility does not factor in to the capacity limit.
The diocese said in its petition that the plan subjects “houses of worship alone” to “onerous fixed-capacity caps while permitting a host of secular businesses to remain open in ‘red’ and ‘orange’ zones without any restrictions whatsoever.”
And the Jewish organizations noted that Cuomo, a Democrat, had specifically mentioned outbreaks in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods when imposing the restrictions. “This court should not permit such remarkable scapegoating of a religious minority to stand,” the organizations said in court documents.
Cuomo attributed the court’s order to its more conservative majority. “I think that Supreme Court ruling on the religious gatherings is more illustrative of the Supreme Court than anything else,” Cuomo told reporters. “It’s irrelevant from a practical impact because the zone that they were talking about has already been moved. It expired last week. I think this was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and politics.”
Technically, the court’s order blocks Cuomo’s restrictions from being reimposed while legal challenges continue. But the court’s unsigned opinion would appear to make the ultimate outcome clear.
“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the opinion said. “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.”
The opinion was endorsed by Barrett, Gorsuch and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Brett M. Kavanaugh, Trump’s second appointment to the court. It was mild compared with recent comments from Alito and the Gorsuch opinion, which no other justices joined.
Alito, who did not write a separate opinion, recently told the conservative legal organization the Federalist Society that the pandemic “has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty.”
“It pains me to say this, but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right,” Alito said.
But Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for fellow liberals Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, said it was a strange time for the court to be offering relief.
“The number of new confirmed cases per day is now higher than it has ever been,” Breyer wrote, pointing to the growing national death toll and the outsize number of fatalities New York has suffered, which tracking by The Washington Post puts at more than 34,000.
“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,” Breyer wrote.
Sotomayor was more pointed in a separate opinion joined by Kagan: “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.”
Roberts noted in his opinion that the rules might be unduly restrictive but said Cuomo has already eased them, essentially giving the churches and synagogues the relief they had requested.
“The Governor might reinstate the restrictions. But he also might not,” the chief justice wrote. “And it is a significant matter to override determinations made by public health officials concerning what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic.”
“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,” he wrote.
Gorsuch’s solo opinion was at times scathing and sarcastic. He noted that Cuomo had designated, among others, hardware stores, acupuncturists, liquor stores and bicycle repair shops as essential businesses not subject to the most strict limits.
“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,” Gorsuch wrote. “Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?”
Gorsuch criticized Roberts for relying on one of the court’s 1905 precedents for his position that the court should defer to local officials during health crises.
The chief justice seemed taken aback. He said his earlier opinion in the California case asserted only that the Constitution chiefly leaves such decisions to local officials.
That, he wrote, “should be uncontroversial, and the [Gorsuch] concurrence must reach beyond the words themselves to find the target it is looking for.”
He also defended the liberal justices from Gorsuch’s tough words, even though Roberts did not join their dissents.
“I do not regard my dissenting colleagues as ‘cutting the Constitution loose during a pandemic,’ yielding to ‘a particular judicial impulse to stay out of the way in times of crisis,’ or ‘shelter[ing] in place when the Constitution is under attack,’ ” Roberts wrote, quoting Gorsuch’s opinion.
“They simply view the matter differently after careful study and analysis reflecting their best efforts to fulfill their responsibility under the Constitution.”
Conservative religious organizations praised the court’s action.
“Governor Cuomo should have known that openly targeting Jews for a special covid crackdown was never going to be constitutional,” said Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund, which represented Agudath Israel. Covid-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus. “The Supreme Court was right to step in and allow Jews and Catholics to worship as they have for centuries.”
But Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the court’s action was dangerous.
“New York’s temporary restrictions on indoor gatherings do not discriminate against houses of worship, and, in fact, treat them better than comparable non-religious gatherings,” Lieberman said in a statement. “The Supreme Court’s decision will unfortunately undermine New York’s efforts to curb the pandemic.”