The US Supreme Court upheld challenges from New York Churches and synagogues to state pandemic restrictions on religious services just before Thanksgiving. This 5-4 ruling comes after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted an executive order on pandemic safety measures that applied to houses of worship in early October. This rule created graded color zones, classifying COVID-19 risks, and applying restrictions to those zones. For example, houses of worship in red zones are limited to 10 people in attendance, and in orange zones, the cap is set at 25 people. The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, among others, asked the Supreme Court to block the restrictions on houses of worship, claiming the rules unfairly target religion, as other establishments had different or no caps for capacity.
While this official ruling is a win for religious groups, Governor Cuomo had already lifted the restrictions amid criticisms. Supporters of Cuomo’s decision cite the growing COVID-19 cases, the multiple cases of mass infections because of large religious gatherings, and the traditional aspects of religious services (i.e., gathering inside, large gatherings of people, singing and shouting) as strong reasons to limit religious services. Opponents criticize the move as an infringement on religious freedom and an overreach of power. As forementioned, the executive action was already lifted, but the Supreme Court found this case worthy of hearing and ruling on to prevent future infringements on religious rights during the ongoing pandemic.
An important question that has come from this executive order is where do we place religious services, in essential or nonessential services? The order places restrictions on essential businesses and different restrictions on nonessential ones, while placing harsher restrictions on religious institutions. Such actions support the Diocese’s argument that religious institutions are not being treated fairly. Circling back to the initial question, it is imperative to establish where religious institutions fall. Once that is determined, it will be easier to implement fair restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nevertheless, amid a global pandemic, restrictions are key to preserving public health.
Lawyers for the Church argued that spacious houses of worship are capable of social distancing and an hour-long mass is safer than a typical trip to the grocery store or working a 9-5 in the workplace; Therefore, these restrictions are aggressive, targeting, and unnecessary, and houses of worship should be given the opportunity to operate as other establishments.
Given the rising cases and hospitalizations, all restrictions should be considered to mitigate COVID-19. Without an order like the one enforced by Cuomo it is likely that gatherings for religious services will continue to contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
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