While in Europe many countries have adopted binding legislation with respect to the exercise of worship, the Supreme Court of the United States has just signaled a change of course in its approach to restrictions linked to the coronavirus, by voting five votes to four against the State of New York, which had just reimposed certain limits on religious gatherings.
The decision rendered just before midnight, on Wednesday, November 25, is one of the first significant signs of a shift in the Court since the appointment of the Catholic Amy Coney Barrett, to replace the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September.
Last May and July, the Supreme Court narrowly dismissed an appeal challenging restrictions on religious freedom in California and Nevada.
The Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts then joined his Democratic-appointed colleagues on the Court, to give full latitude to states and local communities wishing to limit religious gatherings as part of the fight against Covid-19.
But that’s all water under the bridge. The rulings published last November 25, granting immediate relief from the sanitary constraints weighing on Catholic and Jewish buildings in New York State, have shown, as many progressives feared, a particular attachment to the free exercise of religion for the majority of the Supreme Court.
John Roberts and the three other judges appointed to the Court by Democratic presidents, disagreed, stressing that the additional relief requested was not necessary due to a relaxation of health restrictions on religious groups, decided there a short while ago by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
According to the system in force in New York, religious services held in “red” areas of the state are limited to ten people, while those in “orange” areas can accommodate up to twenty-five people at a time.
However, on November 23, Andrew Cuomo increased the number of worshipers able to visit their places of worship all over the state, except for Staten Island and Monroe and Onondaga counties.
Bitter, Sonia Sotomayor, one of the justices who singled out the attitude of the Church: “I fear that the granting of requests such as the one filed by the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn will only exacerbate the suffering of the nation,” she wrote. And she went so far as to add that “the judges of this Court are playing a deadly game in questioning the judgment of those responsible for health,” which had motivated the restrictions weighing on religious groups.
Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, appointed by Donald Trump in 2017, concluded the debate with a touch of irony, posing as the guarantor of the country’s Constitution, which is supposed to defend freedom of religion: “Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical; courts must resume applying the Free Exercise [of religion] Clause.”