In a 5-4 ruling late Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked attendance restrictions on houses of worship imposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The restrictions, set by Cuomo on October 6, color coded areas in New York City experiencing high rates of positive COVID-19 tests. Religious services in "red" areas were capped at 10 people, with less affected areas being capped at 25 people.
The high court sided with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Orthodox Jewish congregations that said the restrictions were a violation of the First Amendment.
The ruling was the first significant case for Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett, who sided with the majority. Bush appointee Justice John Roberts – who has drawn repeated criticism from conservatives for siding with liberal members of the court on key rulings – joined the three liberal justices in the minority.
"Numerical capacity limits of 10 and 25 people, depending on the applicable zone, do seem unduly restrictive," wrote Roberts for the minority opinion. "It is not necessary, however, for us to rule on that serious and difficult question at this time."
Roberts previously sided with the liberal justices in May in a similar case involving restrictions on churches and other religious institutions.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion and said Cuomo had not shown equal treatment to both religious and nonreligious activities.
"It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques," Gorsuch said. "So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians. Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?"