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Supreme Court Bars New York's Pandemic-Related Restriction On Religious Gatherings

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last night, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down some of New York state's strict attendance limits on religious gatherings. The rules were designed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. This 5-to-4 decision highlights tensions that have grown during the pandemic between secular leaders and some religious groups. It also opens a window on the new makeup of this court now that Amy Coney Barrett is on the bench. NPR's Brian Mann is in Westport in upstate New York and has been following developments. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey. Happy Thanksgiving, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Same to you. New York has seen tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths, so what immediate impact is this ruling going to have on the state's attempt to fight the pandemic?

MANN: Well, state officials say there's no immediate impact. The Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish groups brought this legal challenge, and state officials have already rolled back the so-called red and orange zones that covered their churches and synagogues. So the rule limiting attendance to as few as 10 people, even in big religious spaces, it wasn't actually being enforced. But the ruling could limit new restrictions here in the future if the number of cases really surges again in New York. And this also sends a message, you know, to other governors around the country how the Supreme Court will look at any of their restrictions.

SHAPIRO: What's the reaction been today from the religious groups that brought this case?

MANN: Yeah, they've declared victory. They say this is an important win for religious freedom. They point out that New York was still allowing so-called essential businesses to operate in coronavirus hotspots without the same level of restriction. And this win for religious leaders is a reversal from the Supreme Court's posture just last summer that gave governors a lot more leeway fighting this pandemic. I spoke about this with Douglas Laycock at the University of Virginia. He's a legal expert on religious liberty.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: The governor's orders in New York were some of the most Draconian in the country. This is the first case where Amy Coney Barrett really makes a difference as compared to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And it flipped the result. And they're not going to be deferential to governors anymore. They're really going to examine closely for signs of discrimination.

MANN: And Laycock points out, Ari, that governors can still restrict religious gatherings. They just can't restrict them in ways that are different from rules for businesses or government buildings.

SHAPIRO: Now, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was named personally in the lawsuit. How did he respond to the ruling?

MANN: Yeah, he described this as a political statement being made by this more conservative block that now defines this court. But in his daily coronavirus briefing today, Cuomo did also acknowledge the complicated tension here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: Look; I'm a former altar boy, Catholic - Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school, Jesuits at college. So I fully respect religion. And if there's a time in life when we need it, the time is now. 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.

MANN: And I should add, Ari, that this isn't really new here. We've seen deadly coronavirus outbreaks in New York around religious communities - following ceremonies, funerals and weddings, for example - right from the start of this pandemic. And religious leaders have clashed repeatedly with Cuomo, also with New York City's mayor, over how far elected officials can or should go to limit new infections.

SHAPIRO: Now, you mentioned that this reflects the new makeup of the Supreme Court. And there was some tense language in the opinions. Tell us about what the justices said.

MANN: Yeah. Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a concurrence agreeing with this decision that was pretty biting. He wrote that, according to Governor Cuomo - and I'm reading here - quote, "it may be unsafe to go to church, but it's always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians" - that's a reference there to acupuncture clinics that remain open in New York. Meanwhile, in her dissent, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out that in the past, the Supreme Court has given public officials broad leeway in cases involving religion where public safety is a concern. She pointed to the fact that the Supreme Court upheld President Trump's ban on immigration from certain Muslim countries, so Justice Sotomayor suggesting that this ruling reflects a double standard.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Brian Mann, thanks a lot.

MANN: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.