Has There been an Interesting Supreme Court Case Recently?
March 1, 2021 | View PDF
Yes, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion on November 25, 2020 that I found interesting involving the apparent suppression of in person worship. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York sought injunctive relief against New York Governor, Andrew M. Cuomo (ROMAN CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF BROOKLYN, NEW YORK v. ANDREW M. CUOMO, GOVERNOR OF NEW YORK).
Though Cuomo claims to be Roman Catholic, he holds several liberal views contrary to Catholic teachings and the free exercise of worship. During this time of COVID-19, Cuomo issued an executive order limiting occupancy of churches and synagogues in certain areas. Cuomo divided certain areas into red and orange sections. Based on remarks by Cuomo and a review of maps it was felt that he had gerrymandered the boundaries of red and orange zones to include heavily orthodox Jewish communities. Red zones limited occupancy to ten persons and orange zones limited occupancy to twenty-five persons. Injunctive relief was sought by both the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York and Agudath Israel of America along with other entities. Of the twenty-six churches in the Diocese most can seat at least five hundred persons, at least fourteen can seat over five hundred and two can seat over 1,000 persons.
Agudath Israel of Kew Garden Hills can seat up to four hundred persons. It was very difficult to understand how restrictions of ten or twenty-five people in these buildings could pose a greater heath hazard than certain activities allowed in New York. Within the red zone where only ten people can occupy a church or synagogue, there are “essential businesses” that may allow an occupancy of whatever size they desire. Essential businesses include, “acupuncture facilities, camp grounds, garages, as well as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities”. While places of worship are limited in orange zones even non essential businesses in those zones are not required to limit occupancy. Those places of worship involved operated for many months using precautionary measures and had allowed only 25-33% capacity without any Covid outbreaks.
Justice Breyer wrote, “The applicants have clearly established their entitlement to relief pending appellate review. They have shown that their First Amendment claims are likely to prevail, that denying them relief would lead to irreparable injury, and that granting relief would not harm the public interest.” It was Breyer’s opinion that the shutting out of a majority of the parishioners of the churches or synagogues would cause irreparable harm. Many Catholics for instance would be unable to take communion and Jewish congregants would be unable to participate in traditions that require personal attendance. Breyer went on to say “. . . even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
The executive order became a fluid one, something that would change in shape, would change from being called an orange zone to being called a yellow zone with different restrictions. If the changes occur late in the week there is not enough time to seek judicial relief to allow congregants the ability to worship. It was the holding of the Court to enjoin the Governor’s Executive Order from the continued restriction of religious worship.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Gorsuch wrote, “And it turns out the businesses the Governor considers essential include hardware stores, acupuncturists, and liquor stores. Bicycle repair shops, certain signage companies, accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents are all essential too. So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?”
Chief Justice Roberts dissented, saying “I would not grant injunctive relief under the present circumstances. There is simply no need to do so. After the Diocese and Agudath Israel filed their applications, the Governor revised the designations of the affected areas. None of the houses of worship identified in the applications is now subject to any fixed numerical restrictions. At these locations, the applicants can hold services with up to 50% of capacity, which is at least as favorable as the relief they currently seek.” Roberts went on to say, “The Governor might reinstate the restrictions. But he also might not. 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. As things now stand, however, the applicants have not demonstrated their entitlement to “the extraordinary remedy of injunction.”
From a personal opinion, a reckless elected official that unjustly treads on the Constitutional rights of citizens cannot be treated with a laissez-faire approach when he or she changes blatantly unconstitutional orders to flow with the tide of legal proceedings or public opinion. A person of such wily character is like a fox that hides in a hen house, waiting to pounce again once the excitement dies down.
This article is informative only and not meant to be all-inclusive. Additionally this article does not serve as legal advice to the reader and does not constitute an attorney- client relationship. The reader should seek counsel from their attorney should any questions exist.”No representation is made that the quality of legal services performed is greater than the quality of legal services performed by other lawyers.”