Supremes Take a Bite out of Big Apple Restrictions

November 30, 2020

While most Americans were at home prepping for the big day, nine Supreme Court justices were still at the office Wednesday night, cooking up something else: a rebuke of New York City's COVID restrictions. In her coming out party, new Justice Amy Coney Barrett made her presence felt -- casting the tie-breaking vote that only solidified the working mom's standing as a rock-solid defender of religious freedom.

The rookie justice, in her first major case, didn't wait long to prove her supporters right. After just four weeks on the job, Barrett has made it crystal clear that the balance of power has officially shifted. For the first time in years, someone other than Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote on a fundamental constitutional question. And to the delight of conservatives, it was a vote that reminded Americans that religious liberty doesn't take a back seat to the whims of liberal leaders as they navigate the challenges of a virus. Joining forces with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, President Trump's trio of Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh sent a blunt warning to states that the pandemic is no excuse to tamper with the First Amendment.

"[E]ven if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic," Gorsuch insisted, "it cannot become a sabbatical." His pointed message was meant for Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), who's made it his mission to keep churches and synagogues closed for months under the guise of "public safety." Sick and tired of the unfair treatment, Brooklyn's Catholic Diocese and two Jewish congregations took the governor to court, insisting that religious communities had been "singled out" for "blame and retribution" during the spiking virus cases. In what New York City calls "red zones," only 10 people can worship together. One level lower, in the "orange zones," that number is capped at 25 -- even if the churches have capacity for 1,000 people.

The hypocrisy, Gorsuch wrote, is astounding. In Cuomo's New York, "People may gather inside for extended periods in bus stations and airports, in laundromats and banks, in hardware stores and liquor shops. No apparent reason exists why people may not gather, subject to identical restrictions, in churches or synagogues -- especially when religious institutions have made plain that they stand ready, able, and willing to follow all the safety precautions required of 'essential' businesses and perhaps more besides. The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn't as 'essential' as what happens in secular spaces."

Governor Cuomo, he pointed out, "is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment, laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all 'essential' while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids." It's past time, he argued, "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."

Not surprisingly, the radical governor didn't take kindly to the ruling -- complaining openly about the president's justices. "We know who he appointed to the court. We know their ideology." Asked to compare this decision to the Nevada and California cases that went the Left's way, Cuomo shrugged. "You have a different court [now]..." And on that, he's exactly right. Wednesday's win wouldn't have been possible without Justice Barrett -- and she wouldn't have been possible without the president's gutsy judicial agenda.

"Liberals have often marveled at how religious conservatives could so fervently back a decidedly imperfect man in President Trump," one Washington Post columnist wrote. "This case, in which all three of Trump's appointees formed the majority's backbone, shows why they did." At the end of the day, whether he has four years in the White House or eight, one thing's for certain: the impact of Trump's judges will keep conservatives celebrating for years.