This is breaking news this morning, November 26 2020. The US Supreme Court in a landmark ruling declared that COVID 19 cannot be used to infringe on the first amendment right of religious freedom.
With Justice Amy Coney Barrett casting the deciding vote, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state of New York could not impose strict limitations on attendance at religious services in the name of COVID 19 which the plaintiffs had argued was used a catchall to justify suspensions of the US Constitution across the entire US, especially in Democratic party controlled states.
The court ruled in a 5 to 4 vote to overturn church attendance limits imposed by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo in areas of New York that were most severly impacted by COVID 19. He had claimed the power to limit church attendance to just 10 people in red zones even in cases where services were held outdoors, and had sough to limit it 25 in orange zones. All three appointees of past Democratic presidents as well as John Roberts dissented from the ruling. New York uses the color coding zone to designate areas in terms of increasing severity, for example yellow, orange and red. It similar to the system used by Whittier 360 when reporting on the numbers for Whittier Area so that local residents can be better informed to make the best possible decisions for themselves and their families.
The lawsuit had been brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization in New York. Both had argued the limits violated their right to free exercise of religion. In recent decades there have been two schools of thought with regards to freedom of religion in America. On the one hand you have people who think religous freedom means only freedom to think and freedom of conscious but not freedom to practice your religion as your religion requires. The other school of though is that freedom of religion, as originally intended by the founders, means both freedom of thought as well as freedom to practice. New York had argued the first amendment did not include the right to freedom to practice your religion. With this new ruling, the US Supreme Court has clearly sided with the freedom of practice school of thought on religious freedom.
However it is not the end of the road just yet for the case. The Court is sending the matter back to a lower court based on the new input from the US Supreme Court. The Court in particular was troubled that business and multinational corporations were considered essential and did not have any occupancy limits imposed on them and that the limits only applied to religious organizations. The justices cited things from campgrounds, acupuncture businesses, restaurants, supermarkets, among other examples. They said the New York pandemic restrictions, "strike at the very heart of the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty."
The case was the first time Barrett participated in making a decision that has wide ranging impact throughout the US. She had recused herself from an earlier election related case that was connected to the 2020 election.
In their dissent the three liberal justices argued that public health authorities should be granted absolute powers during times of pandemics and they would have ruled the US Constitution to take a backseat to the requirements needed to stop the pandemic. They accused the majority of second guessing public health agencies and endangering the lives of millions of US residents.
Several other religious organizations had also filed friend of the court briefs in support the plaintiffs in the case which now returns to the lower court.