U.S. Supreme Court Backs Jewish, Christian Religious Groups Over New York Virus Curbs

Justice Amy Coney Barrett casts deciding vote on challenge by houses of worship against state's latest coronavirus restrictions

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A person enters the Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar synagogue in the South Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, U.S., October 19, 2020.

The U.S. Supreme Court late on Wednesday backed Christian and Jewish houses of worship challenging New York State's latest restrictions in novel coronavirus hot spots.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court granted requests made by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America, including affiliated congregations Agudath Israel of Kew Garden Hills and Agudath Israel of Madison.

The ruling marked one of the court's first consequential actions since President Donald Trump's new appointee, conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, joined the bench. Justice Barrett cast a deciding vote in favor of the religious groups. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts dissented along with the court's three liberals.

An October 6 decision by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down non-essential businesses in targeted areas where infections have spiked, including some Brooklyn neighborhoods. 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 U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, and that their facilities were singled out for more stringent restrictions than essential businesses, such as food stores. 

“This is an historic victory,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel, one of the houses of worship challenging the governor's order. “This landmark decision will ensure that religious practices and religious institutions will be protected from government edicts that do not treat religion with the respect demanded by the Constitution.”

The chairman of Agudath Israel's Board of Trustees, Shlomo Werdiger, said: “It was not an easy decision for Agudath Israel to go to court over this matter. That is not our preferred means of advocacy. However, the principle at stake was of such monumental importance that we felt impelled to fight to uphold our religious freedom."

Werdiger emphasized that the congregation has "prioritized health" since the pandemic started and "look[s] forward to continuing to work hand in hand with our elected officials to ensure the well-being of our community with a single standard of safety for religious and secular activities."

The ruling was welcomed by Yossi Gestetner, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, who wrote on Twitter: "Arrogant Cuomo got decked by SCOTUS in a 5-4 ruling. Basically, governors cannot impose tighter rules on religious activity than on secular activity. A 10-person limit for a house of worship imposed by Cuomo while stores can have times over that amount is unconstitutional."

New York State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, who represents Borough Park and parts of Midwood, both in Brooklyn, also took to Twitter to praise the decision, writing: "The Supreme Court sides with the people! @NYGovCuomo's Executive Order illegally targeted religious communities."

A federal judge in Brooklyn rejected separate requests made by the religious groups on October 9. The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined emergency requests filed by both sets of challengers on November 9.

In two previous cases this year, the court, in 5-4 votes, rejected similar requests made by churches in Nevada and California.

Those votes occurred before liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death in September, in which she and her three liberal colleagues were joined by Roberts in the majority. 

Cuomo had imposed limitations on Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn and other parts of the state after an uptick in COVID-19 cases was recorded in October. The restrictions included a cap on religious services set at 10 individuals as well as school and business closures. The introduction of the restrictions coincided with the celebrations of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the last of the fall High Holy Days, which are generally celebrated with large gatherings and dancing.

Cuomo’s move generated much anger from community members who felt singled out and took their frustration to the streets. Hundreds of Orthodox Jews protested in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn last month, with some of the demonstrations turning violent.

The COVID-19 restrictions were dubbed the Cluster Action Initiative and identified zones with upticks in coronavirus cases, divided into “yellow,” “orange” and “red” zones, with the latter being the worst hotspots in terms of infection, and accordingly, the most restrictive guidelines.

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