Last night, the Supreme Court voted to bar the state of New York from reimposing Covid-19 restrictions on religious gatherings. The court voted 5-4 in an emergency ruling issued just before midnight. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was just recently confirmed, sided with her conservative colleagues in a crucial swing vote.
In their decision, the majority said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion. The restrictions varied and depended on zone: In “red” zones, zip codes where coronavirus infections are the highest, no more than 10 people may attend religious services. Attendance is capped at 25 in “orange” zones, where the risk of coronavirus infection isn’t as high.
The unsigned majority opinion in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America said that Covid-19 regulations are “far more restrictive than any Covid-related regulations that have previously come before the court, much tighter than those adopted by many other jurisdictions hard hit by the pandemic, and far more severe than has been shown to be required to prevent the spread of the virus.”
By contrast, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented: “Free religious exercise is one of our most treasured and jealously guarded constitutional rights,” she wrote. “States may not discriminate against religious institutions, even when faced with a crisis as deadly as this one. But those principles are not at stake today.”
Sotomayor, in particular, said that the Constitution “does not forbid states from responding to public health crises through regulations that treat religious institutions equally or more favorably than comparable secular institutions, particularly when those regulations save lives. Because New York’s Covid-19 restrictions do just that, I respectfully dissent.”
The impact of Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court cannot be denied, signaling that support for Covid-19 restrictions has shifted since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg prompted President Donald Trump and Republican colleagues to speed up a confirmation process in a bid to secure a conservative majority.
The hashtag #AmyCovidBarrett began to trend on social media after the ruling, which renewed calls for President-elect Joe Biden to expand the court once he takes office.
So essentially SCOTUS ruled against what’s happening in the best interest of the state, and by extension, the public interest. Sure, let the religious zealots dictate what’s best. Nice work, #AmyCovidBarrett. Let’s hope Biden expands the Court. It is time.
— Eric Slater (@ericsslater) November 26, 2020
#AmyCovidBarrett decided that religious orgs have the right to spread disease w/o hindrance among all populations.
There is no place in the Judiciary of a liberal democratic republic for a religious extremist/absolutist.
— blackeyedSusan (@SusanBlackeyed) November 26, 2020
— Rebekah Kelley (@rkelley79ma) November 26, 2020
What a truly terrifying appalling decision. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in this case, as in the prison case, & Justices Ginsburg & Kagan’s in the COVID voting cases, will be the written record of how 4 justices on the SCOTUS valiantly tried to save the nation from this pandemic. https://t.co/vbPn9z1ysZ
— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) November 26, 2020
Alan is a writer, editor, and news junkie based in New York.