In a display of rich irony, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) accused the Supreme Court of playing politics with the novel coronavirus after it struck down his regulations that purported to severely limit the size of worship services in certain areas of the state.
Cuomo, whose regulations had previously withstood a series of legal challenges, responded to the Supreme Court’s rebuke of his regulations by musing, “You have a different court, and I think that was the statement that the court was making. We know who [President Trump] appointed to the court. We know their ideology.”
Of course, Cuomo’s dismissal of the Supreme Court’s decision largely ignores the fact that the Supreme Court struck down his regulations in a 5-4 ruling largely because it found that Cuomo’s response to the novel coronavirus was based largely on politics, and not on science.
The court specifically noted that many non-religious activities have not been restricted (or have been differently restricted) by Gov. Cuomo’s regulations for no apparent reason other than the fact that liberals enjoy to do them — and certainly not for any public health-related reason.
As the court’s per curiam opinion noted, “It is hard to believe that admitting more than 10 people to a 1,000–seat church or 400-seat synagogue would create a more serious health risk than the many other activities that the State allows.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing in concurrence, sarcastically noted the somewhat obvious fact that, observing the state crackdown on Christians and Jews who assemble to peacefully worship while leaving liberal protesters completely unmolested, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the state’s regulations were not based on science and public health (since a virus does not care why people gather), but rather on whether certain activities were favored or disfavored by the state’s liberal governor.
As Gorsuch noted,
People may gather inside for extended periods in bus stations and airports, in laundromats and banks, in hardware stores and liquor shops. No apparent reason exists why people may not gather, subject to identical restrictions, in churches or synagogues, especially when religious institutions have made plain that they stand ready, able, and willing to follow all the safety precautions required of “essential” businesses and perhaps more besides. The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as “essential” as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools are all “essential” while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.
In addition to his criticism of the court’s decision, Cuomo also claimed that the decision was “irrelevant” since the restrictions struck down by the Court were phased out anyway. In Cuomo’s mind, the Court’s decision pertains specifically and only to those six districts; however, the Court’s ruling clearly laid down the gauntlet for any restriction nationwide that treats religious services differently will not pass constitutional muster.
As Gorsuch noted, the issue was not merely this specific set of regulations, but the fact that many states seem to have forgotten that they cannot treat religious services worse than their secular counterparts.
Mediaite reported that in the 5-4 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the three progressive justices in the minority, but new Justice Amy Coney Barrett voted with the other conservative justices to form the majority.