Cuomo downplays significance of SCOTUS ruling on religious gatherings

Photo of Brendan J. Lyons

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo downplayed the significance of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling late Wednesday that shot down the governor's executive order limiting the size of religious services in New York's "orange" and "red" zones, where the state has identified surges in the rate of coronavirus infections.

Cuomo asserted the 5-4 decision by the nation's highest court "isn't final" and that the case will go back to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals for finetuning. He also contends that the case is moot because the Jewish organizations and the Brooklyn Catholic Diocese that filed the legal challenge are no longer subject to the limits on the size of religious gatherings.

Although the order applies to all religions, Jewish organizations had asserted it was a move largely intended to crack down on their synagogues and gatherings.

"It's irrelevant from any practical impact because the zone that they were talking about  has already been moot," Cuomo said during a coronavirus briefing on Thursday. "I think this was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and politics. It doesn't have any practical effect. ... Look I'm a former altar boy, Catholic ... so I fully respect religion and if there's a time in life when we need it the time is now."

The governor alleged that the Supreme Court, which has six Conservative justices, was making a political statement.

"It didn't affect our mass-gathering rules ... it didn't mention those," he said. "I mean we know who he (President Donald J. Trump) appointed to the court; we know their ideology."

The state's solicitor general, Barbara Underwood, had notified the Supreme Court last week that the case had become moot because Brooklyn was no longer an "orange zone," where gatherings are capped at 25 people. The plaintiffs responded that Cuomo should not be able to "feign retreat" by suddenly changing lowering the restrictions as the case was being litigated.

Dennis Poust, director of communications for the NYS Catholic Conference, which represents New York's bishops, called the decision "an important one for religious liberty."

"While we believe, and the court agreed, that the 'hot zone' restrictions on religious gatherings were unduly harsh, our churches have been otherwise eager partners with the state in protecting the health of our parishioners, clergy, staff, and surrounding communities during this devastating pandemic," he said. "That will continue, as protecting the vulnerable is a pro-life principle."