Washington: With new Justice Amy Coney Barrett's vote, the US Supreme Court has blocked coronavirus restrictions imposed on religious services in New York state, backing Christian and Jewish houses of worship in infection hot spots.
The court, on a 5-4 vote, granted requests made by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Orthodox Jewish congregations.
The order marked one of the first consequential actions on the court of President Donald Trump's new conservative appointee, who cast a deciding vote in favour of the religious groups. Republican appointee Chief Justice John Roberts dissented along with the court's three Democrat appointees.
A decision by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on October 6 shut down non-essential businesses in targeted areas where infections have spiked, including some Brooklyn neighbourhoods. It limited gatherings at religious institutions to 10 people in some areas and 25 in others.
The houses of worship say that the limits violated religious freedoms protected by the US constitution’s First Amendment, and that their facilities were singled out for more stringent restrictions than essential businesses, such as food stores. The Orthodox congregations were Agudath Israel of Kew Garden Hills and Agudath Israel of Madison, as well as nationwide Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America.
The Diocese of Brooklyn, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, argued it had previously operated safely by capping attendance at 25 per cent of a building’s capacity and taking other measures. Parts of Brooklyn and Queens are now in yellow zones where attendance at houses of worship is capped at 50 per cent of a building’s capacity.
A federal judge in Brooklyn rejected separate requests made by the religious groups on October 9. The New York-based 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals declined emergency requests filed by both sets of challengers a month later.
In two previous cases this year, the Supreme Court, on 5-4 votes, turned away similar requests by churches in Nevada and California.
Those votes occurred before the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She and her three liberal colleagues were joined by Roberts in the majority.
New York has reported at least 36,000 deaths and more than 618,000 cases of COVID-19. The state's daily average of COVID-19 cases more than doubled in the first two weeks of November as cases surged nationwide.