The Court Decides: Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo

By Ritaja Subrahmanya

As COVID-19 cases rose across the country, states placed restrictions on various businesses and places of worship. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo limited the capacity of places of worship to 10 people in red zones and 25 people in orange zones. In response, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn filed a request for injunction, arguing the restrictions on houses of worship were harsher than those on secular businesses. 

In previous decisions regarding churches in California and Nevada, Chief Justice John Roberts said COVID-19 restrictions were consistent with the free exercise of religion clause. However, in a 5-4 decision, the court contradicted its previous rulings, stating that Governor Cuomo’s restrictions violated the First Amendment’s protections of the free exercise of religion.  

Until the spread of COVID-19 decreases, houses of worship need to adapt their religious services to protect the people. (Photo by Illustration by Ritaja Subrahmanya)

The court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo is illogical and incorrect. Cuomo and other officials are not attacking houses of worship, but are instead protecting the people. 

As cases rapidly increased, officials placed restrictions on all businesses, not just houses of worship. Only essential businesses were exempt from these rules. Not to mention, these restrictions did not force people to stop practicing their religions. 

Religious officials also argued that places of worship should be considered essential businesses, which are defined as necessary for the physical and mental well being of people. While religious services might improve people’s mental state, they are simply not comparable to the benefits of the health care, food or financial industries. 

Medical food and financial services are used by everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. Places of worship cannot be considered essential as they are only used by certain groups of people and do not serve the U.S. as a whole. 

The courts said that schools and factories, which Cuomo asserted contributed to the spread of COVID-19, had less restrictions than places of worship and therefore these restrictions limited religious freedoms. However, factories are essential to continue producing necessities and schools are necessary to continue education. 

Despite being COVID-19 hotspots, the closing of schools would be devastating to many communities, especially those with lower incomes who might lack basic necessities like having a computer or proper access to the internet at home. Similarly, if factories were closed, we would lose many important items that we use in our daily lives such as meat, furniture, electronic parts or even spices. The loss of factories would affect the entire country. However, restricting places of worship or moving worship online, would have a negligible  impact on the people because they are still able to do their worship in a safe manner. 

Yet in recent weeks, some New York schools have closed, while others have hybrid plans. How can places of worship be exempt from restrictions when even schools are being closed? Surely, places of worship can adapt to online or socially distanced ways to continue religious services just like schools have. While online worship is not the same, it is temporary and once cases decrease, in person worship will be allowed.

Research has also shown that singing and chanting, like those done at places of worship, release airborne particles which can spread COVID-19. As of Jan. 15, New York had over 1.2 million cases, with the numbers increasing daily. While there haven’t been any outbreaks in any of the Diocese’s churches, easing restrictions is a risk officials cannot afford to take when COVID-19 is as widespread as it is in these communities.

Religious freedom is extremely important in a country like the U.S. with such a diverse religious culture. However, these freedoms do not give us the right to endanger others or compromise public safety. After so many Americans risk their lives daily to combat the rapid spread of COVID-19, the least we can do is follow the rules. Not being able to enter places of worship is a temporary inconvenience that people must deal with until the spread of COVID-19 is decreased. 

Ultimately, Cuomo is not violating the free exercise of religion clause, but is rather asking people to follow guidelines while they worship, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People can still follow their religious customs, in a safe way. The Supreme Court must reconsider their decision in order to protect the lives of the American people.