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U.S. Supreme Court blocks New York’s cap on religious services

In a 5-to-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court overnight blocked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's effort to slow rising COVID-19 cases with a cap on the number of attendees at religious services in high-risk communities. Amna Nawaz speaks with the National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle, and Dr. Dara Kass, an associate professor of emerging medicine at Columbia University, to learn more about the decision.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Supreme Court overnight blocked one of the measures New York state took to combat the pandemic.

    Governor Andrew Cuomo had capped religious services at 10 attendees in communities where the virus risk is highest. In the 5-4 vote, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the newest justice, voted to block the restriction, along with Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.

    Now, the majority said houses of worship had been singled out for tougher treatment, while the dissenters said the government needs leeway when it comes to public health in a pandemic.

    Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal" is with us now to dive into the court's order.

    Marcia, welcome back to the "NewsHour," and thanks for being with us this Thanksgiving.

    We should note it's not the first time the court has weighed in on pandemic restrictions, but what stood out to you about this latest ruling?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    This ruling, Amna, was — had a lot of writing in it, more than 30 pages, five separate opinions, all showing that there were very strong feelings on both sides and also very careful analysis.

    One thing that struck me in particular was the concurring opinion in the majority by Justice Gorsuch, in which he really sort of accused the court of cutting loose the Constitution during a pandemic, not really caring so much about the religious liberty that was at stake here.

    And Chief Justice Roberts in his dissenting opinion, he spent most of the opinion discussing Justice Gorsuch's language, in which he said they were not cutting loose the Constitution or ignoring the religious liberty. They were seriously examining and analyzing the issues in good faith.

    And I will say this for Chief Justice Roberts. He's done this before when another justice has questioned the motivation of other justices on the court.

    And then, finally, I would say the fact that Justice — the newest justice, Justice Barrett, had joined the majority, and the chief justice was in dissent. He was on the liberal side of the court. And I think that also shows that the conservatives on the court really don't need him, the role he played last term in which he was basically the center, the median justice on the court, who could calibrate or moderate the shift of the court either to the left or the right.

    His role has been diminished. The five other conservative justices have that magic five votes if they need it. So, we're going to have to wait and see, I think, where Justice Barrett goes from here. She did not write separately, so we don't know what her thoughts were, other than that she agreed with the majority.

    But it would have been nice to hear what her thinking was in this particular case.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We don't know her thoughts on this particular case, as you mentioned, but a lot of people have been waiting to see what the impact of her presence on the court would be.

    And this is the first time we see some of that impact. What else does it tell us, though, specifically when it comes to pandemic restrictions, and the fact that the court may have to consider more of these restrictions at this time?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, they already have pending at least two other applications for injunctions by religious institutions.

    And I will point out that the two that the court ruled on last night, I believe they actually were filed after Justice Barrett's confirmation. And so the fact that others are coming in now, I think, shows that they feel they have a more sympathetic court in terms of the religious liberty issues that they're bringing.

    And I think the court, though, is going to be weighing what is at stake when it comes — what rights are at stake when it comes to the restrictions that the governors are imposing here.

    It may not always be religious liberty. It could be free speech. We just have to wait and see now that the court has a 6-3 conservative majority where the court's going to go. I'm sure there will be more applications for injunctions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal" joining us tonight.

    Thanks so much for being with us, Marcia. And happy Thanksgiving to you.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Thanks. Same to you. Take care.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And now for a public health view on that Supreme Court decision, we turn to Dr. Dara Kass. She's an associate professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and a medical contributor for Yahoo News. She joins me now from New York.

    Dr. Kass, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for making the time.

    When you look at that Supreme Court decision, from a public health perspective, what to you worry that the impact of that might be?

  • Dara Kass:

    So my worry, it's really going to remove our about to make decisions in a very targeted way to the environment that we think are really where the virus spreads.

    We probably think we can keep 80 percent of businesses open if we only taring the places that we think the virus is spreading. And, unfortunately, there's evidence that, within houses of worship, especially when they're at capacity without masks, we have seen super-spreader events and really unrelenting spread of this virus.

    So, the problem with the case for me is that it removes the ability of local governance, governors and mayors, to make the decisions that impact their community as little as possible, while protecting their citizens from this virus.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Dr. Kass, some of the dissenters on the Supreme Court said that public health experts need that leeway to make decisions.

    But the majority of the justices said, even in a pandemic, you can't treat businesses and groups differently. You can't leave liquor stores and bike shops open, for example, and then close houses of worship.

    What do you say to that?

  • Dara Kass:

    I would say that our local leaders and our public health officials are saying to treat different businesses and different gathering spaces differently.

    We know there are certain environments, probably less than 20 percent of all gathering spaces, that are unsafe in this pandemic. But most are safe. Places like schools are probably better off than places like bars.

    And, unfortunately, houses of worship spread the virus more like bars than they do like schools. And we need to treat each space in accordance of its effect on this pandemic, not necessarily about what the justices want it to be.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the few seconds we have left, I should ask you.

    People are considering, on this Thanksgiving holiday, if they should gather tonight, how they should gather tonight. If you had a few words of advice for people out there as they weigh that decision, what would they be?

  • Dara Kass:

    I would say to think of this moment, instead of individual freedom, but collective responsibility, the opportunity for all of us to act as one unit to protect each other, and that if your house of worship or your family is gathering in a way that you think isn't safe, just don't go.

    Wait it out a few more months. Protect your local family and your community as best as you can, because we're going to get to the other side of this pandemic very, very soon. Help is on the way. We just need to get there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Dr. Dara Kass, emergency medicine associate professor in New York and Yahoo News medical contributor.

    Thank you again for your time.

  • Dara Kass:

    Thank you. Have a great holiday, OK?

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