The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday banned the governor of New York state from imposing restrictions on places of worship due to the coronavirus outbreak, in a ruling seen as a defense of freedom of worship.
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Religious services should not be treated any differently from authorized non-religious gatherings, said the unsigned judgment, in which new judge Amy Coney Barrett tipped the scales in favor of the Conservatives.
Governor Andrew Cuomo had limited to ten the number of people who could meet in places of worship in “red zones” where the virus circulates a lot.
The court was speaking on two requests, from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, as well as two synagogues.
By five votes to four, the Supreme Court ruled that these measures were contrary to the free exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment.
Previously, the court had ruled differently, having upheld similar restrictions in California and Nevada.
This shift reflects the new balance of power at the Supreme Court since the arrival in late October of Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Catholic judge appointed by President Donald Trump after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Even in a period of a pandemic, we cannot put aside and forget the constitution,” said the Court.
“The restrictions at play here, effectively preventing many from attending church services go to the very heart of the protection of religious freedom under the First Amendment,” said the ruling.
Stephen Breyer Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, like the President of the Court, John Roberts, issued a dissenting opinion, disagreeing with the judgment.
John Roberts felt there was no need to support the groups’ complaints given the governor’s hindsight.
But conservative judge Neil Gorsuch argued that Governor Cuomo had favored secular activities over religious activities.
The pandemic has fueled serious tensions between the Democratic town hall and the Orthodox Jewish community of New York, accused of not respecting the rules of health distancing. It had sparked sometimes violent protests in Brooklyn last month.