The U.S. Supreme Court issued an injunction late Wednesday night, blocking Governor Andrew Cuomo from enforcing 10- and 25-person occupancy limits on religious institutions.

The state had told the court there was no need to act because the restrictions, which were adopted as a way to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, had recently been dialed back. Presumably the petitioners, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel, wanted to prevent such restrictions in the future.

The court divided 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissenting. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, in addition to Justice Amy Barrett, made up the majority.

In an unsigned majority opinion, the court said the restrictions would violate religious freedom and are not neutral because they “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”

While religious institutions were affected, businesses categorized as essential could admit as many people as they wish, the court said, and the list of such businesses included acupuncture facilities and others the court said were not essential.

New York had argued that houses of worship were treated less restrictively than activities it considered comparable, such as lectures, concerts, cinemas, sporting events and theaters, which were shut.

The last sentence from Justice Gorsuch’s concurring opinion reads: “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.”


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