SCOTUS Enjoins Governor Cuomo’s COVID Restrictions on Houses of Worship

In Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of New York, 592 U.S. ___, 2020 WL 6948354 (U.S. Nov. 25, 2020), the U.S. Supreme Court granted an emergency application for injunctive relief, enjoining Governor Cuomo from enforcing New York Executive Order 202.68‘s 10- and 25-person occupancy limits applicable to houses of worship, for the time being (pending, e.g., appellate disposition).

Framing the issue, the court explained:

Both applications seek relief from an Executive Order issued by the Governor of New York that imposes very severe restrictions on attendance at religious services in areas classified as “red” or “orange” zones. In red zones, no more than 10 persons may attend each religious service, and in orange zones, attendance is capped at 25. The two applications, one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the other by Agudath Israel of America and affiliated entities, contend that these restrictions violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and they ask us to enjoin enforcement of the restrictions while they pursue appellate review. Citing a variety of remarks made by the Governor, Agudath Israel argues that the Governor specifically targeted the Orthodox Jewish community and gerrymandered the boundaries of red and orange zones to ensure that heavily Orthodox areas were included. Both the Diocese and Agudath Israel maintain that the regulations treat houses of worship much more harshly than comparable secular facilities. And they tell us without contradiction that they have complied with all public health guidance, have implemented additional precautionary measures, and have operated at 25% or 33% capacity for months without a single outbreak.

The applicants have clearly established their entitlement to relief pending appellate review. They have shown that their First Amendment claims are likely to prevail, that denying them relief would lead to irreparable injury, and that granting relief would not harm the public interest. See Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U. S. 7, 20 (2008). Because of the need to issue an order promptly, we provide only a brief summary of the reasons why immediate relief is essential.

The Court proceeded to explain, specifically, how the elements bearing on injunctive relief – (1) likelihood of success on the merits, (2) irreparable harm, (3) public interest – favored the applicants.

As to the likelihood of success on the merits, for example, the Court explained that the applicants made a “strong showing that the challenged restrictions violate the minimum requirement of neutrality to religion” and that “the regulations cannot be viewed as neutral because they single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”

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