Updated Nov 26, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions

 The US Supreme Court is seen in Washington, DC, on May 4
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that restrictions previously imposed on New York places of worship by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) during the coronavirus pandemic violated the First Amendment.

Why it matters: The decision in a 5-4 vote heralds the first significant action by the new President Trump-appointed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

  • While the groups are no longer subject to the 10- and 25-person occupancy restrictions, the ruling signals a shift in the now-conservative majority court.
  • The court earlier this year declined to lift pandemic restrictions in California and Nevada when the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was on the court.

What they're saying: "Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have contributed to the spread of COVID–19 but there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services," the court's majority said in an unsigned opinion.

For the record: Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts dissented the latest decision, along with the court's three liberal members.

  • "The governor might reinstate the restrictions, but he also might not," Roberts wrote.
  • "And 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. If the governor does reinstate the numerical restrictions the applicants can return to this court, and we could act quickly on their renewed applications."

Of note: COVID-19 cases are surging across the U.S., including in New York, where Cuomo announced plans Wednesday to reopen a temporary field hospital on Staten Island next week to help cope with the rise in virus hospitalizations.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

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