Facts of the Case
Plaintiff Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 202.68 (Continuing Temporary Suspension and Modification of Laws Relating to the Disaster Emergency) (hereinafter the Emergency Order), which significantly restricted attendance at “houses of worship” in certain parts of New York, in response to a large uptick in COVID-19 infection rates. Plaintiff alleged that the Order, as applied to it, violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Are the applicants in this case, religious entities, entitled to a preliminary injunction on the basis of showing that their First Amendment claims are likely to prevail, that denying them relief would lead to irreparable injury, and that granting relief would not harm the public interest?
The applicants in this case are entitled to a preliminary injunction because they have shown a likelihood of success on their First Amendment claims, denial of relief would lead to irreparable injury, and granting relief would not harm the public interest. In a per curiam (unsigned) opinion issued without argument, the Court held that the applicants met all of the requirements for a preliminary injunction.First, the Court held that they had made a “strong” showing that the challenged restrictions violated a “minimum requirement of neutrality” by specifically naming religious entities for restrictions while allowing secular businesses categorized as “essential.” Second, the Court noted that “the loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Finally, the Court found that the government had not demonstrated that the requested relief would harm the public, as it did not claim that attendance at the applicants’ services resulted in the spread of disease. Thus, the Court held that enforcement of the restrictions on the religious services must be enjoined.Justice Neil Gorsuch authored a concurring opinion arguing that there is a pattern of states using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to treat religious exercises worse than secular activities, and this is but one example of that.Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored a concurring opinion to highlight the importance of issuing the injunction at this time, rather than waiting, as Chief Justice John Roberts advocated in his separate dissenting opinion.Chief Justice Roberts authored a dissenting opinion arguing that there is no need to grant injunctive relief under the present circumstances because Governor Cuomo had already versed the designations of the affected areas, and the religious services were not subject to any fixed numerical restrictions.Justice Stephen Breyer authored a dissenting opinion, which Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined. Justice Breyer agreed with the Chief Justice in that there was no need to issue an injunction at this time, given that none of the applicants are presently subject to the fixed-capacity restrictions they challenged. Further, Justice Breyer argued that the Court’s precedents recognize the importance of courts’ granting elected officials broad discretion when they must act on the basis of uncertain and rapidly changing medical and scientific information, as in this case.
- Citation: pending
- Decided Nov 25, 2020