NEW YORK — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said a U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down Wednesday night blocking state officials from enforcing a cap on religious gatherings in coronavirus hot spots in Brooklyn and Queens is “irrelevant from any practical impact” because those areas are no longer designated virus hot spots.
He said the decision, among the first that includes newly appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett, was “really more an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and politics.”
“The Brooklyn zone no longer exists as a red zone. That’s mooted. So that restriction is not in effect,” Cuomo said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. “That’s what was irregular about the court taking it up.”
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of issuing an injunction on the state’s enforcement of the religious service rules, which cap religious gatherings at 25 in areas designated as “orange zones” and 10 in areas designated as “red zones” under state orders.
The ruling departs from past Supreme Court decisions that largely upheld states’ rights to limit religious gatherings.
The case will now return to a lower federal court for a decision. Cuomo said the Supreme Court decision won’t affect caps on religious gatherings in other parts of the state currently designated as red or orange zones.
Religious institutions across the state, even if they’re not in hotspot zones, are still required to keep in-person gatherings at 50% capacity under state rules — a policy that wasn’t challenged in the Supreme Court decision.
The complaints considered by the Supreme Court were filed by the orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel and the Brooklyn Roman Catholic Diocese, both of which argued that the rules limiting in-person religious gatherings infringe on their first amendment rights.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote “there is no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services.”
Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the court’s three liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer in arguing that the governor’s zone restrictions on religious gatherings are constitutional.
Agudath Israel and the Brooklyn Diocese, the two religious organizations that filed the complaints that led to the ruling, celebrated the decision.
“I’m so gratified the decision has come today because our country was founded on the principle of religious freedom,” said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio in a news conference Thursday morning. “Unfortunately, we see it in the case before us ... there can be too much of a restriction, which doesn’t really make sense when we look at the volume of space we have in our churches.”
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Leaders of Agudath Israel, an organization that represents Haredi Orthodox Jews across the country, said the orange and red zone restrictions were needlessly broad.
“You shouldn’t be treating one of the bug shuls in the same way you’re treating a shul that houses 25-30 people,” said Agudath Israel Executive Vice President Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, who added that the restrictions blocked some observant Jews who wanted to attend in-person services from doing so. Zweibel said the restrictions treated religious venues “far more severely and strictly than other types of venues.”
City and state officials have repeatedly warned that large religious gatherings can facilitate the spread of the virus. A Satmar Orthodox synagogue in Williamsburg Brooklyn held a wedding earlier this month for roughly 7,000 guests, leading to a fine from city officials.
DiMarzio said the Brooklyn Diocese has been “scrupulous” about following mask and social distancing rules. “I would hope that everyone follows the rules,” he said. “Because some people don’t follow the rules, everyone is being restricted, and that’s the problem.”