But support on the high court for those rulings shrank with Ginsburg’s death. Wednesday night’s orders granting emergency relief to Roman Catholic churches and to Jewish congregations in New York demonstrated, as many suspected, that Barrett would side with the court’s most conservative justices in insisting on greater accommodation for religion even as the pandemic continues.
“Stemming the spread of COVID–19 is unquestionably a compelling interest, but it is hard to see how the challenged regulations can be regarded as ‘narrowly tailored,’” the court wrote in an unsigned opinion. “They are far more restrictive than any COVID–related regulations that have previously come before the Court, much tighter than those adopted by many other jurisdictions hard-hit by the pandemic, and far more severe than has been shown to be required to prevent the spread of the virus at the applicants’ services.”
Barrett did not write a separate opinion in the two New York cases, but the orders signaled that she was part of the majority backing the court’s controlling, unsigned opinion.
Roberts and the court’s three remaining Democratic appointees dissented, stressing that the emergency relief wasn’t necessary because Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently reclassified the areas in question in a color-coded system from “orange” to “yellow,” lifting the most onerous restrictions.
Roberts said the limits on religious activities under “orange” or “red” restrictions in New York may violate the Constitution, but he warned against jumping into that issue when no such limits are now in effect.
“It may well be that such restrictions violate the Free Exercise Clause. It is not necessary, however, for us to rule on that serious and difficult question at this time,” the chief justice wrote in a solo dissent. “The Governor might reinstate the restrictions. But he also might not. And it is a significant matter to override determinations made by public health officials concerning what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic.”
“I fear that granting applications such as the one filed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn … will only exacerbate the Nation’s suffering,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a somber dissent joined by Justice Elena Kagan.
Sotomayor vigorously disputed the contention that the religious groups were being unfairly discriminated against, arguing that comparisons between religious services and liquor or big-box stores were overly facile because the virus-related health risks posed by what people do in those places are starkly different.
“Unlike religious services … bike repair shops and liquor stores generally do not feature customers gathering inside to sing and speak together for an hour or more at a time,” she wrote. “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.”