Supreme Court Blocks New York COVID-19 Restrictions On Religious Gatherings

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court late on Wednesday sided with Christian and Jewish houses of worship in their challenge of New York state coronavirus restrictions that limited gatherings in religious institutions.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, voted 5-4 vote in favor of requests by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Orthodox Jewish congregations for an injunction to block the restrictions from being enforced.

The order marked one of the first consequential actions on the court involving President Donald Trump’s new appointee, conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who cast a deciding vote in favor of the religious groups. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts dissented along with the court’s three liberals.

“HAPPY THANKSGIVING!” Trump tweeted on Thursday in response to the decision.

The case stemmed from Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision on Oct. 6 to shut down non-essential businesses in targeted areas where infections have spiked, including some neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It limited gatherings at religious institutions to 10 people in some areas and 25 in others.

The houses of worship argued 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. The Orthodox congregations Agudath Israel of Kew Garden Hills and Agudath Israel of Madison, as well as nationwide Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America, requested the injunction to prevent the state from enforcing the restrictions.

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

In two previous cases this year, the court, in 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, and saw her and her three liberal colleagues joined by Roberts in the majority.

Without commenting on the court’s decision, Cuomo urged New Yorkers to “Mask up” in a tweet on Thursday, adding that nearly 7,000 people in the state had tested positive the day before while 67 died as a result of the virus. “Celebrate safely,” he added in a separate celebratory Thanksgiving tweet.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Robert Birsel and Paul Simao)

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