The Supreme Court has voted to ban New York from reimposing limits on religious gatherings in the state amid rising coronavirus infections, a decision that highlights the influence of recently appointed justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Justices voted 5-4 against New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who has proposed putting a cap on the number of people that can attend religious services. The decision marks a shift in the court's handling of coronavirus-related restrictions and underscores its solidified right-leaning majority.
Justice Barrett, who was controversially appointed to the bench by outgoing president Donald Trump, sided with four of her conservative colleagues in the vote, while chief justice John Roberts joined three liberal justices in dissent.
The decision came as new coronavirus cases soared across the US and deaths edged towards the 265,000 mark. Health officials on 25 November reported 178,443 new cases in the previous 24 hours, down slightly from 178,200 the day before.
Some 6,267 of those infections were recorded in New York state, up from 4,878 in the previous 24-hour period. Cases have begun to rise again in the state after flatlining in June. New York has recorded 618,000 infections and 33,890 deaths since the outbreak began.
Amid rising infections, governor Cuomo had sought to reimpose restrictions in "red" or "orange" virus hotspot zones. In a red zone, no more than 10 people were permitted to attend a religious service. Attendance was limited to 25 in orange areas.
Authorities have accused some Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City of holding packed weddings and funerals without masks or social distancing. Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would fine one synagogue in Brooklyn $15,000 for violating pandemic restrictions. Community leaders insist they are not doing anything wrong and are being unfairly targeted.
Two applications were filed to the court by a Roman Catholic Church and a Jewish congregation. Both will now have relief from the restrictions.
Citing the First Amendment, both institutions argued that the restrictions violated their freedom of expression. The Supreme Court said in its ruling the applicants had "clearly established their entitlement to relief".
"Stemming the spread of Covid–19 is unquestionably a compelling interest, but it is hard to see how the challenged regulations can be regarded as ‘narrowly tailored,'” the court said in an unsigned opinion.
“They are far more restrictive than any Covid–related regulations that have previously come before the Court, much tighter than those adopted by many other jurisdictions hard-hit by the pandemic, and far more severe than has been shown to be required to prevent the spread of the virus at the applicants’ services.”
Governor Cuomo had argued in legal documents that the restrictions were necessary to help limit transmission of the infection at places of worship, adding that churches and other gathering locations were being treated differently to businesses.
The court had rejected two similar challenges to coronavirus-related restrictions on religious gatherings in California and Nevada before the late liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and justice Barrett was chosen to replace her.
The timing of her nomination and confirmation by the Republican-controlled Senate infuriated Democrats, as the GOP had blocked the nomination of President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016, arguing that since an election was only nine months away it was inappropriate to make such a significant decision. However, Ms Barrett was confirmed at a time when many Americans were already casting early ballots for the 2020 election.
Republicans made much of her Roman Catholic faith during the confirmation hearings, making it notable that her first significant contribution should be on a matter of religious worship.