NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo responded Thursday to the Supreme Court’s overnight ruling against New York’s coronavirus restrictions on houses of worship in areas of New York City.
The governor said the decision hasn’t changed anything and called the court’s action “irrelevant from any practical impact.”
However, leaders of the two groups who are plaintiffs in the case — the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel, an advocacy group for the Orthodox Jewish community — disagreed, saying that this is a case about religious liberty and more sensible health measures.
Cuomo, for his part, pointed out that the two groups that sued as a result of the “red zone” restrictions, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues in Brooklyn and Queens, are no longer subject to them.
Parts of Brooklyn and Queens are now in yellow zones where attendance at houses of worship is capped at 50 percent of a building’s capacity.
“I think this was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and politics,” Cuomo said.
The justices split 5-4 on the decision, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the majority. It was the conservative’s first publicly discernible vote as a justice.
The court’s three liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.
In an unsigned order, a majority of the court said New York’s restrictions “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Brooklyn Diocese said that the ruling is relevant far beyond the boundaries of the New York City region.
“There are places where, for example, I’m on the board of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.,” DiMarzio said. “That church seats 5,000 people. They are only allowed to have 100 people, by the laws of the District of Columbia.”
“The district refused to hear their plea.” he said. “We have the same problem.”
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel is the executive vice president of Agudath Israel. He said, in an interview, “It made no sense to treat a small synagogue that seats 25 people on a regular basis the same as a synagogue that seats 500 people.”
For Cuomo, it came down to public safety.
“I fully respect religion, and if there’s a time in life we need it, the time is now,” Cuomo said. “But we want to make sure we keep people safe at the same time.”
Cuomo said the Supreme Court is “different” now, referencing Coney Barrett tipping the court more conservative.
Earlier in this year, when Barrett’s liberal predecessor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was on the court, the justices divided 5-4 to leave in place similar pandemic-related capacity restrictions affecting churches in California and Nevada.
Two lower courts had sided with New York in allowing the restrictions on houses of worship to stand.
There are currently several areas statewide designated orange zones but no red zones, according to the state’s website that tracks areas designated hot spots.
The governor asserted that the Supreme Court decision isn’t final, saying that it would go back to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
When asked by a reporter if he felt the ruling would convince churches and synagogues they now have the leeway to host gatherings of thousands, Cuomo disagreed.
“It didn’t effect our mass gathering rules…It didn’t mention the overall limits,” he said.
President Donald Trump seemingly celebrated the court’s decision on Twitter Thursday morning, writing simply “Happy Thanksgiving!” while sharing a tweet of the news from the @SCOTUSblog account.
During Trump’s single term in office, he appointed three of the justices sitting on the Supreme Court, including Barrett. Conservatives now have a 6-3 majority.