The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday concerns restrictions on religious services. In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the Constitution does not tolerate any government edicts that keep churches, synagogues, and mosques closed but allow liquor stores and bike shops to reopen. The decision was split between conservative and liberal justices with Chief Justice John Roberts voting with the liberals.
A similar case affecting churches in California and Nevada received the exact opposite vote. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to leave restrictions on churches and synagogues in place due to the pandemic. That decision took place while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was present.
In the current case, the majority stated that the orders from New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo violated the free exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote a concurring opinion saying that the governor was playing favorites with some activities. He wrote the following:
It is time – past time – to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques.
The case was filed to protect the Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America that have churches and synagogues in zones designated as red and orange in the Brooklyn and Queens areas. In the zones labeled red and orange, New York put a cap on attendance at houses of worship at 10 and 25, respectively. However, current designation of yellow in both zones was not challenged.
The lawsuits will continue, but the emergency order temporarily stops New York from enforcing the restrictions. The majority did not like the restrictions that “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”