Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld challenges from New York churches and synagogues to state pandemic restrictions on religious services. Professor Robin Fretwell Wilson, an expert in law and religion, spoke about the decision with host Steve Inskeep on NPR's Morning Edition. An excerpt from their conversation follows:
INSKEEP: Would you just remind us what are the basics of this case in New York?
WILSON: Well, I mean, you've opened it really well. The basics are that there is an executive order from the governor that had been put in place. We're almost 10 months into the shuttering of parts of the economy. That order ultimately gets backwalked, but the court is very, very concerned about the fact that it is the most restrictive that has come before the court. There were two preceding cases before this newly recomposed court, one out of California and another out of Nevada, where the limits were not nearly so extreme. And every person writing on the court acknowledges that fact, that this was the most extreme.
INSKEEP: Yeah. We're talking about the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, a couple of Orthodox Jewish synagogues who said, wait a minute, these restrictions for a while said that we could only have religious services with, I think, 10 people, and later it was 25 people. And these are institutions that are accustomed to having hundreds in rather large cathedrals and synagogues that can hold hundreds or even more than that. Yet it seemed, when I read the 33 pages of opinions, to be a narrow difference. These religious institutions didn't claim a total exemption from health regulations. They said they just wanted to be treated equally. Governor Andrew Cuomo didn't even maintain the rules. They're gone, at least for the moment. But they wrote - the justices wrote - like, this is a big case. What made it feel like a big case?
WILSON: Well, I think it made it feel like a big case because it seems like the government went nuclear on churches and churches alone. That's the claim that runs across these pages. You know, so there's a lot of discussion about acupuncture and campgrounds and microelectronic plant chip-makers, and they're allowed to basically stay open, either because they're essential, which had no cap, unlike churches, and red zones, as you said, were capped at 10 people, or even when they were nonessential, so these orange zones where churches were limited to 25 and only 25 in some instances. And nonessential and essential businesses both had no cap whatsoever.
Read or listen to the full interview at npr.org.