In what appears to be her first deciding vote with the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, Amy Coney Barrett joined a 5-4 majority of justices late Wednesday that ruled New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo cannot limit the size of religious group gatherings despite the escalating surge in coronavirus cases.
The recently confirmed Barrett cast the deciding assenting vote in favor of the religious groups. Chief Justice John Roberts dissented along with the court’s three liberal justices. The order was issued just before midnight.
The decision is viewed as the first show of conservative strength on the Supreme Court since Barrett was sworn in to fill the seat of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September. It also is a deviation from the high court’s past practice of deferring to local experts and officials about how to impose and manage coronavirus-related restrictions. In those previous cases Ginsburg had ruled in favor of restrictions meant to protect public health.
On Oct. 6 Cuomo, a Democrat, imposed restrictions on the size of religious gatherings based on the number of new cases occurring in “hot spots” across the state. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Jewish organizations led by Agudath Israel challenged Cuomo’s system in court, saying they were too severe and violated worshipers’ First Amendment rights.
The unsigned Supreme Court opinion granted the religious groups’ petition for a stay of Cuomo’s order, saying “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.”
In his dissent Roberts wrote, “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.” Roberts also noted that while the court was considering the petitions, Cuomo had eased the restrictions based on updated scientific data and, therefore, there was no need for the court to intervene now.
Thus from a practical standpoint the ruling has no effect, although it does signal what may be to come from the court’s conservative majority.