The U.S. Supreme Court sided with two religious organizations who filed lawsuits earlier this fall after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo closed houses of worship in areas of the state hard-hit by COVID-19.

In its ruling, the court wrote that “members of this court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

The 5-4 decision, which came on Wednesday evening, was in response to two lawsuits: one by the Archdiocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.; and one by Agudath Israel of America and two of its affiliated congregations. Both claimed that the closures violated parishioners’ First Amendment rights. The Agudath case also claimed that the rules seemed to target neighborhoods with large Orthodox populations in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, along with parts of Orange and Rockland counties.

The ruling that sided with Jewish and Catholic groups marked a shift from cases heard earlier in the year, before Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when the court ruled in favor of governors imposing attendance restrictions on religious services.

“This is an historic victory,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel. “This landmark decision will ensure that religious practices and religious institutions will be protected from government edicts that do not treat religion with the respect demanded by the Constitution.”

Shlomo Werdiger, chairman of Agudath Israel’s Board of Trustees, added that “it was not an easy decision for Agudath Israel to go to court over this matter. That is not our preferred means of advocacy. However, the principle at stake was of such monumental importance that we felt impelled to fight to uphold our religious freedom.

“Agudath has prioritized health since the onset of this pandemic, and we continue to encourage sound health practices,” he continued. “With the legal parameters clarified, we look forward to continuing to work hand in hand with our elected officials to ensure the well-being of our community with a single standard of safety for religious and secular activities.”

Responding to the decision, Cuomo said he believed that the issues were more about politics than impactful policy.

“I think that the Supreme Court ruling on the religious gatherings is more illustrative of the Supreme Court than anything else. It’s irrelevant from a practical impact because the zone that they were talking about has already been moved. It expired last week,” said the governor. “I think this was really just an opportunity for the Court to express its philosophy and politics. It doesn’t have any practical effect. … 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.”


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