For the second time, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus restrictions aimed at churches have been deemed unconstitutional by the state judiciary. In a ruling issued on Monday, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals found that Cuomo’s decision to hit houses of worship with especially-restrictive lockdown orders did not meet the standards set out by the guiding principle of strict scrutiny. Therefore, the court agreed with an earlier ruling by the New York Supreme Court which deemed the orders a violation of the First Amendment
“No public interest is served by maintaining an unconstitutional policy when constitutional alternatives are available to achieve the same goal,” wrote Judge Michael Park. “The restrictions challenged here specially and disproportionately burden religious exercise, and thus ’strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.’ Such a direct and severe constitutional violation weighs heavily in favor of granting injunctive relief.”
The panel found 3-0 in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and their co-plaintiffs, which had sued the governor over what they considered an unfair targeting of religious worship centers. These rules limited church attendance to either 10 people or 25% capacity in the state’s designated red zones, and limited attendance to 25 people or 33% capacity in the state’s so-called orange zones. In both cases, churches were required to go with the lesser amount, meaning that a church whose capacity might number in the hundreds would still be required to limit their congregation to 10/25 people, depending on where the church was located.
“In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, we hold that the Order’s regulation of ‘houses of worship’ is subject to strict scrutiny and that its fixed capacity limits are not narrowly tailored to stem the spread of COVID-19. Appellants have established irreparable harm caused by the fixed capacity limits, and the public interest favors granting injunctive relief,” the 2nd Circuit panel concluded.
In his majority opinion, Judge Park found that Cuomo “has not asserted that his categorization of businesses as ‘essential’ or ’non-essential’ was based on any assessment of COVID-19 transmission risk.”
In other words, Cuomo made these distinctions arbitrarily, which is certainly not an ideal way to produce executive orders – particularly when they run afoul of individual freedom and the U.S. Constitution.
Avi Schick, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the court’s decision “will be felt way beyond the COVID context. It is a clear statement that government can’t disfavor religious conduct merely because it sees no value in religious practice.”
Particularly when we know what kinds of conduct the Cuomo administration DOES find value in.