Cuomo Attacks Supreme Court, but Virus Ruling Is Warning to Governors

click to enlarge The Supreme Court building on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. - ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times
The Supreme Court building on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.
By Jesse McKinley and Liam Stack
The New York Times

ALBANY, N.Y. — As the coronavirus pandemic has deepened and darkened in recent months, the nation’s governors have taken increasingly aggressive steps to curb the current surge of infections, with renewed and expanded restrictions reaching into people’s homes, businesses, schools and places of worship.

Many of these rules, often enacted by Democratic officials and enforced through curfews, closures and capacity limits, have been resisted by some members of the public, but largely upheld by the courts.

Late Wednesday night, though, the U.S. Supreme Court forcefully entered the arena, signaling that it was willing to impose new constraints on executive and emergency orders during the pandemic, at least where constitutional rights are affected.

In a 5-4 decision late Wednesday, the court struck down an order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that had restricted the size of religious gatherings in certain areas of New York where infection rates were climbing. The governor had imposed 10- and 25-person capacity limits on churches and other houses of worship in those areas.

The decision seemed to signal that some governmental efforts to stem the pandemic had overreached, impinging on protected freedoms in the name of public health. If unconstrained religious observance and public safety were sometimes at odds, as the governor and other public officials maintained, the court ruled that religious freedom should win out.

Cuomo accused the court of partisanship, suggesting the ruling reflected the influence of the three conservative justices who have been nominated by President Donald Trump in the past four years.

“You have a different court, and I think that was the statement that the court was making,” Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, said on Thursday. “We know who he appointed to the court. We know their ideology.”

The decision represented something of a Thanksgiving gift for Catholic and Orthodox Jewish leaders, who had blasted Cuomo’s rules as a profound and unfair restriction on the freedom of religion.

“I have said from the beginning the restrictions imposed by Gov. Cuomo were an overreach that did not take into account the size of our churches or the safety protocols that have kept parishioners safe,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said on Thursday morning, noting that Catholics had adhered to coronavirus safety protocols at Mass since the virus first emerged in New York in March.

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