In a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court banned New York from imposing limits on the number of attendees in churches and synagogues on Wednesday.
The court blocked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo from enforcing his "cluster action initiative" on religious gatherings, according to Fox News.
The initiative, which was supposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, provides color-coded limits on people going to houses of worship. In areas considered as red zones, houses of worship are only allowed 25% of their maximum occupancy or 10 people, whichever is less.
The justices' concurring opinion described Cuomo's initiative as "very severe restrictions on attendance at religious services in areas classified as 'red' or 'orange' zones." Furthermore, they argued that such regulations cannot be taken as neutral because they "single out" churches and other houses of worship, which are most affected by the limitations.
The five justices also argued that the cluster action initiative violates the First Amendment and the people's right to religious liberty.
"Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure," the opinion further said.
Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed. In his dissenting opinion, he said that while limiting church attendance to 10 and 25 people does appear to be restrictive, it is not necessary for the court "to rule on that serious and difficult question at this time."
Roberts also said it is a "significant matter" for the court to "override" guidelines that were set by public health officials during a pandemic.
Justice Neil Gorsuch believed otherwise. In his concurring opinion, Gorsuch said he recognized the risks involved during the pandemic, but the Constitution should not tolerate such color-coded restrictions that allow liquor stores and other shops to reopen but limit the number of people who can go to houses of worship.
"So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians," Gorsuch said in his concurring opinion.
The ruling is a reversal of a previous decision by U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis, who refused to block Cuomo's restrictions on religious gatherings, arguing that such measures helped prevent more infections.
Gov. Cuomo said the decision is "irrelevant" and brushed it aside, saying it is not yet final, according to ABC 7.
Meanwhile, religious leaders praised the Supreme Court decision. Dr. Michael Brown, author, radio and TV host and founder of AskDrBrown Ministries, said he was glad to see how Justice Barrett made a "positive difference for religious freedoms."
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was nominated by Pres. Donald Trump when former Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away in September and was confirmed in October, sided with the majority.
Evangelist Franklin Graham, on a social media post, thanked Pres. Trump for appointing three conservative justices to the Supreme Court who were among those who came against the "government overreach" in the state of New York.