By Nicholas Williams
Nicholas Williams is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences from Los Angeles, California who plans on majoring in Political Science and History.
On November 25, 2020, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in the case of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo . In the decision, the majority held that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order that limited attendance at in-person houses of worship due to the COVID-19 pandemic constituted an unconstitutional violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The case’s outcome could significantly affect both the future of the Supreme Court and government policy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuomo’s executive order limited attendance at in-person religious services depending on how severe the COVID-19 pandemic was in a certain area. In “red zones,” only 10 people were allowed to attend a given service, while in “orange” zones, 25 people at a time were allowed to attend a religious service . The plaintiffs, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, contended that their right to exercise their religion was being infringed upon, as the state had let other secular businesses in those same zones open without capacity restrictions. Although Cuomo contends that the case had no practical effect because the specific zone of Brooklyn in question had already moved out of the red zone, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh, as well as recently appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett, voted to strike down the capacity restrictions for religious services laid out in Cuomo’s executive order.
Barrett’s vote is her first decisive one, and it comes less than a month after her confirmation to the nation’s highest court . Barrett was nominated to the Court by President Donald Trump following the death of former liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September, a move which many expected would move the Supreme Court to the right. Barrett was Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee, following Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. The four justices that dissented from the majority opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Earlier this year, Roberts joined Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Ginsburg in upholding restrictions on church attendance in California and Nevada . The fact that Roberts was in dissent with the Court’s liberals in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo while five conservative justices were in the majority could portend future rulings that mark a shift to the right for the Supreme Court.
In terms of COVID-19 policy, the decision signals that the Supreme Court is willing to overturn restrictions that appear to discriminate against houses of worship. The Court’s decision may have affected Los Angeles County’s recent “safer at home” order, which was issued on November 27, 2020 . The order prohibits all gatherings with individuals outside of one’s household, except for “faith based services and protests,” on the grounds that they are “constitutionally protected rights.” L.A. County could possibly have been responding to the Supreme Court’s decision in deciding to not extend the ban on gatherings with members outside of one’s household to religious services, as the county realized that the Supreme Court would be skeptical of restrictions placed on houses of worship. As cities and states are issuing more COVID-19-related restrictions as the year comes to a close, the Supreme Court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo could play a factor in shaping policy regarding restrictions placed on religious gatherings.
Reactions to the decision were mixed. Some, like New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, saw the decision as a win for religious freedom and liberty, as the decision asserted that houses of worship could not be subject to harsher restrictions than secular businesses . Stephens also asserted that the decision is important for protecting First Amendment rights more generally, including the right to protest and petition the government. Others, like Washington Post columnist Steven Mazie, claimed that the decision “goes well beyond tying states’ hands” and shows deference to “increasingly far-fetched religious-liberty claims” . He also argued that the decision portends future Court decisions wherein the Court “provides carve-outs [to religious groups] from rules that the rest of society must follow.”
One additional area of jurisprudence in which Justice Barrett’s vote could have a significant impact is abortion. In the case of June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo (2020), the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a Louisiana state law requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital was unconstitutional . The five justices in the majority were Roberts, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Ginsburg. With Ginsburg no longer on the Court, and many claiming that Barrett is likely to uphold state laws restricting abortions , Barrett’s vote could be consequential in upholding future state restrictions on abortion. The Supreme Court could also see a shift to the right on a number of other issues, although if Roberts sides with the Court’s fellow conservatives more often, Barrett’s vote may not always be as decisive as it was in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo represents an intersection between COVID-19 policy and a Court that has moved to the right under President Trump. Many expect the COVID-19 pandemic to be largely over by the end of 2021 , but Justice Barrett is expected to be on the Supreme Court for decades. Time will tell how her appointment affects the Supreme Court, government policy, and American law in general.
 “Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Cuomo.” SCOTUSblog. Accessed November 30, 2020. https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/roman-catholic-diocese-of-brooklyn-new-york-v-cuomo/.
 Bravin, Jess. “Supreme Court Blocks Covid-19 Restrictions on Religious Services in New York.” The Wall Street Journal. November 26, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/supreme-court-blocks-covid-19-restrictions-on-church-attendance-in-new-york-11606369004.
 Fandos, Nicholas. “Senate Confirms Barrett, Delivering for Trump and Reshaping the Court.” The New York Times. October 26, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/26/us/politics/senate-confirms-barrett.html.
 Gerstein, Josh. “Major shift at Supreme Court on Covid-19 orders.” Politico. November 26, 2020. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/26/supreme-court-religion-covid-barrett-440808.
 “Public Health to Add Additional Safety Modifications to Health Officer Order - Targeted Safer at Home Order Comes After 5-Day Average of New Cases is 4,751.” Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. November 27, 2020. http://www.publichealth.lacounty.gov/phcommon/public/media/mediapubhpdetail.cfm?prid=2830.
 Stephens, Bret. “Thank You, Justice Gorsuch.” The New York Times. November 30, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/30/opinion/cuomo-gorsuch-coronavirus.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage.
 Mazie, Steven V. “What a conservative majority on the court really means.” The Washington Post. November 26, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/11/26/what-conservative-majority-court-really-means/.
 “June Medical Services LLC v. Russo.” Oyez. Accessed November 30, 2020. https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/18-1323.
 “Amy Coney Barrett: The Supreme Court nominee on abortion, healthcare and her faith.” BBC. October 13, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2020-54512678.
 Charumilind, Sarun, Matt Craven, Jessica Lamb, Adam Sabow, and Matt Wilson. “When will the COVID-19 pandemic end?” McKinsey & Company. November 23, 2020. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/when-will-the-covid-19-pandemic-end#.
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