Coronavirus & Andrew Cuomo: Supreme Court May Hear Challenge from Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn

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The Supreme Court is likely to decide later this week whether it will hear a case brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn against restrictions on worship put in place by New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo began his pandemic-response efforts in March with a series of wide-ranging executive orders attempting to shut down or limit the operations of large numbers of businesses and organizations, including churches. Even though the state legislature later passed a measure ceding authority to the governor to give him a more solid basis for these stringent regulations, Cuomo has faced several dozen legal challenges from restaurant owners, operators of gyms, and many other New York residents.

Thus far, all of those complaints have been decided in favor of the governor’s policies or dismissed outright. This latest challenge, however, might make it a bit further. The case involves a set of restrictions that Cuomo enacted in October, aimed at decreasing the spread of COVID-19 by restricting religious worship services in Brooklyn. Here’s some detail from the Wall Street Journal report:

In response to rising infections, Mr. Cuomo created color-coded limits on mass gatherings and business operations. In the hardest-hit areas, which were designated red zones, the state limited attendance in houses of worship to 25% of their capacity or 10 people, whichever is fewer.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said in an interview that the limits were unfair because secular activities—like shopping at grocery stores—were deemed as essential and allowed to continue. The practice of religion is protected by the First Amendment, he said.

“If we were essential, you’d have to look at us differently—whether we were a grocery store or a pharmacy,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “We have been relegated with the bowling alleys.” . . .

Attorneys for Mr. Cuomo said in court papers that New York’s restrictions don’t unfairly target religious organizations. Lower-level federal judges declined to stop the new limits from taking effect despite legal challenges from the diocese and Agudath Israel, an umbrella group representing prominent ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis. Agudath is also petitioning the Supreme Court.

This spring, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the state of California in a similar case, involving a challenge from a California church against Democratic governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order limiting houses of worship to 25-percent capacity or 100 people. The Court split 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh voting in favor of granting the church’s request. Roberts’s opinion asserted that state leaders have wide latitude to craft such policies in light of ongoing changes to conditions in different localities.

Given that the Court’s balance has shifted since that case, with the addition of Supreme Court Justice Amy Barrett, there is reason to believe there could be a five-justice majority more sympathetic to the claims of religious groups in New York.

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