NY Gov. Cuomo Says Supreme Court Decision Overturning COVID Restrictions for Religious Services Has 'No Practical Effect'

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that the U.S. Supreme Court's Wednesday decision to bar COVID restrictions on religious services in New York has "no practical effect" because the case has "already been moot."

"I think that the Supreme Court ruling on religious gatherings is more or less illustrative of the Supreme Court than anything else," Cuomo told reporters during a Thursday morning teleconference. "It's irrelevant from any practical impact because the zone that they were talking about has already been moved, it expired last week."

The Supreme Court addressed two separate emergency applications, one from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel, an Orthodox Jewish congregation, which claimed that Cuomo was targeting houses of worship in his COVID-19 orders while allowing essential businesses to operate with lesser restrictions.

"Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten," the court's unsigned majority opinion said. "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."

Governor Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a COVID-19 briefing on July 6, 2020 in New York City. According to a COVID-19 legal complaint tracker managed by the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, more lawsuits have been filed against Cuomo than any other U.S. governor since the pandemic began. David Dee Delgado/Getty

Cuomo limited gatherings in churches, synagogues and other houses of worship in the state's hardest-hit areas to 10 worshipers in "red zones" or 25 worshipers in slightly less dangerous "orange zones." The court ruled that these limits appeared to violate the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause.

Cuomo, in disagreeing with the decision, noted that the areas in question are no longer in the zones that limit the number of people and says that the decision will therefore have "no practical effect." The churches and synagogues in the Supreme Court application had been previously reclassified into a "yellow zone" by the governor -effective on November 20 - which allows them to operate at 50 percent capacity.

Barbara D. Underwood, New York's solicitor general, emphasized this revision in a letter to the court last Thursday, stating that "none of the diocese's churches will be affected by the gathering-size limits it seeks to enjoin." She told the court in an opposition the following day that the synagogues involved in the application were also no longer under these restrictions.

Cuomo said that the decision is simply to express the new court's "philosophy in politics," especially when considering the difference in votes before Justice Amy Coney Barrett was appointed to the nation's highest court last month.

"I think the basic point is, why does the court rule on an issue that is moot?" Cuomo said. "In other cases - because there were other cases that presented the same argument - why rule on a case that is moot and come up with a different decision than you did several months ago on the same issue?"

"[SCOTUS] wanted to make the statement that it's a different court," he continued. "That's the statement they're making [...] and that's to be expected. We know who we appointed to the court, we know their ideology."

Justice Barrett cast the final decisive vote in the 5 to 4 decision. The court's three liberal members, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, were joined by Chief Justice John Roberts in the dissent.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch — who concurred along with Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — criticized the Democratic governor in his opinion, criticizing his judgement of "essential businesses."

"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," Gorsuch wrote. "Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?"

Gorsuch also heavily criticized the integrity of Roberts and his liberal colleagues' for their dissenting opinions, to which Roberts responded that he and his colleagues "simply view the matter differently after careful study and analysis of reflecting their best efforts to fulfill their responsibility under the Constitution."

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor points to the devastating effects of the pandemic and a disregard for the opinion of health experts.

"Justices of this Court play a deadly game in second-guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily," Sotomayor wrote.

In the footnotes, Sotomayor discussed what she called the irony of the case when considering New York's low rate of infections because of Cuomo's restrictions.

"Ironically, due to the success of New York's public health measures, the Diocese is no longer subject to the numerical caps on attendance it seeks to enjoin," Sotomayor said. "Yet the Court grants this application to ensure that, should infection rates rise once again, the Governor will be unable to reimplement the very measures that have proven so successful at allowing the free (and comparatively safe) exercise of religion in New York."

She also reminded the conservative members of the court that their concern against religious discrimination was not considered during President Donald Trump's "Muslim ban."

"Just a few terms ago, this Court declined to apply heightened scrutiny to a Presidential Proclamation limiting immigration from Muslin-majority countries, even though President Trump had described the Proclamation as a 'Muslim ban', originally conceived as a 'total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what's going on,'" Sotomayor wrote.

"If the President's statements did not show 'that the challenged restrictions violate the minimum requirement to neutrality to religion,' it is hard to see how Governor Cuomo's do," she continued.

In his teleconference, Cuomo mentioned that the case was also not finalized since it will go back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, which is pending.