By Emily Drooby
The Diocese of Brooklyn received a majority victory when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on attendance at religious services violates the First Amendment.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that Cuomo’s executive order limiting the number of worshipers allowed to attend religious services in houses of worship in COVID-19 hot spots — in some cases as few as 10 people — is a violation of religious freedom.
The court ruled on lawsuits brought by the Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, an orthodox Jewish organization.
“It’s significant, I think even a landmark decision,” said attorney Akiva Shapiro, part of the Diocese of Brooklyn’s legal team.
He added that the Supreme Court’s injunction could have far reaching effects; not just for New York, but for religious institutions around the country.
“They were not treating us equally, as others, we became non-essential so that became the problem,” said Bishop Nicolas DiMarzio of the Brooklyn Diocese.
The ruling specifically pertains to restrictions in red and orange COVID hot spot zones where houses of worship were capped at 10 or 25 people. They say many more could safely fit inside.
“We did try to negotiate with the State before we did this,” added Bishop DiMarzio. “We asked them, ‘Look take into account the size of our buildings, then we limited it on that basis.’ But they refused even to negotiate or talk about that, so we had no choice.”
Next, the lawsuit goes back to the appeals court. A hearing is scheduled for December 18.
Governor Andrew Cuomo claims the ruling is irrelevant because the Brooklyn Diocese no longer has churches in the red or orange zones.
During a press conference phone call, he said, “the zone that they were talking about has already been moot. It expired last week, so I think this was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy in politics…”
However, Bishop DiMarzio said that could change at any time and this ruling protects them if it does.
“Although as the Governor said, it was moot because they changed the zones,” he explained, “but they could put the zones in tomorrow.”
It was a 5-4 ruling. Justice Amy Coney Barrett was in the majority. Several similar cases did not have the majority ruling at the Supreme Court earlier this year.
Shapiro explained the significance of this ruling: “Up until this moment, the court, the Supreme Court and therefore the lower courts had been entirely deferential to state and local governments, no matter how severe the restrictions were on religious liberties.”
Shapiro added that now the Supreme Court is saying the Constitution must be considered when states put restrictions into place.
“If there are other states out there that are doing the same thing, imposing stricter requirements on houses of worship those restrictions are now subject to challenge under this ruling,” he said.
Since the pandemic began, religious institutions in states across the country have brought up lawsuits pertaining to COVID restrictions.
In California, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of the Archdiocese of San Francisco has already voiced strong concern against new restrictions in their state that ban indoor worship services, and mentioned the New York ruling.
In New Jersey, the Supreme Court has intervened in a similar situation, demanding that the state respond to a lawsuit brought by a synagogue and a church.