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U.S. Supreme Court Rules Against Cuomo's Lockdown of Religious Gatherings

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New York City, USA. St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a Roman Catholic Church, located on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. (robertcicchetti/Getty Images)

(The Center Square) – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took time out from this Thanksgiving plans Thursday to dismiss a ruling late Wednesday by the U.S. Supreme Court that rejected his administration’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 by placing restrictions on religious gatherings.

The nation’s top court ruled 5-4 in favor of the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization. Chief Justice John Roberts was one of the dissenters, but in his opinion, he said it was not necessary to rule on the “difficult question” at the time since the restrictions have been eased in Brooklyn.

One of the justices ruling against the state was the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

“I think this was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and politics,” Cuomo told reporters Thursday morning.

Brooklyn was the site of one of Cuomo’s first COVID-19 clusters last month. The initiative targets neighborhoods and communities where the spread of the coronavirus meets certain thresholds. Affected zones are color-coded and face restrictions on businesses, mass gatherings, schools, and worship services. The restrictions are more severe based on the color, ranging from the more permissive yellow to orange to the more restrictive red.

Parts of Brooklyn were under red and orange cluster guidelines. Places of worship in red zones are restricted to 25 percent capacity or 10 people maximum, while orange zones are allowed 33 percent capacity or no more than 25 people.

In the unsigned opinion, the justices said the state had other options than a fixed number. Two of the Catholic churches in the cluster have a capacity for at least 1,000 people, while an affected synagogue has room for 400 under normal circumstances. The court also noted that in orange zones businesses deemed “nonessential” weren’t placed under such restrictions.

“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,” the opinion read.

Last week, Cuomo announced Brooklyn’s cluster had changed, with some areas removed and others moved into the yellow zone. Places of worship in yellow zones, which neither religious organization challenged, are allowed to maintain services at up to 50 percent capacity.

On Thursday, the former altar boy who was educated through Catholic schools said he fully respects religion.

“If there's a time in life when we need it, the time is now,” Cuomo said. “But we want to make sure we keep people safe at the same time, and that's the balance we're trying to hit, especially through this holiday season.”

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