ALBANY, N.Y. — As the pandemic has deepened and darkened in recent months, the nation’s governors have taken increasingly aggressive steps to curb the current surge of infections, with renewed and expanded restrictions reaching into people’s homes, businesses, schools and places of worship.
Many of these rules, often enacted by Democratic officials and enforced through curfews, closures and capacity limits, have been resisted by some members of the public, but largely upheld by the courts.
On Wednesday night, though, the U.S. Supreme Court forcefully entered the arena, signaling that it was willing to impose new constraints on executive and emergency orders during the pandemic, at least where constitutional rights are affected.
The ruling struck down a New York restriction on the size of religious gatherings and reflected the growing focus of the high court’s emboldened conservative majority on the emotionally charged issue of when and whether the government can intervene in religious observance.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled late on Wednesday to suspend the 10- and 25-person capacity limitations on churches and other houses of worship in New York in high-infection areas, an opinion which could give momentum to other legal challenges to coronavirus-related orders.
The decision also seemed to signal that some governmental efforts to stem the coronavirus pandemic had overreached, impinging on protected freedoms in the name of public health. If unconstrained religious observance and public safety are sometimes at odds, as the governor and other public officials have maintained, the court ruled that religious freedom should win out.
The justices wrote in the majority opinion, which was unsigned, that “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” the opinion said.
The ruling came even as officials battle “Covid fatigue” in residents and after a presidential campaign in which the response to the pandemic — and public health safeguards, like masks and social distancing — became highly politicized.
The decision was also the first major case decided by the crucial vote of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, whose confirmation to fill the seat of Ruth Bader Ginsburg came just over a week before Election Day.
After the decision, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York accused the court of partisanship, suggesting it reflected the influence of the three conservative justices who have been nominated by President Trump in the past four years.
“You have a different court, and I think that was the statement that the court was making,” said Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, on Thursday. “We know who he appointed to the court. We know their ideology.”
The case’s immediate impact was narrow, setting aside two specific restrictions on attendance at houses of worship — regardless of denomination — that Mr. Cuomo enacted in early October. Those rules were put in place after a surge of cases in several Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, Queens and two suburban counties.
Mr. Cuomo maintains that those outbreaks have since been brought under control, in large part by the measures that the court struck down. Mr. Cuomo has issued dozens of executive orders since the state’s first reported case in March, and those remain untouched, including other restrictions on religious gatherings.
On Thursday, Mr. Cuomo insisted that the decision “doesn’t have any practical effect” because the restrictions on religious services in Brooklyn, as well as similar ones in Queens and the city’s northern suburbs, were eased after positive test rates in those areas declined.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted this fact in his dissent, saying the governor’s capacity limits on houses of worship might violate the First Amendment, then adding, “it is not necessary, however, for us to rule on that serious and difficult question at this time.”
“The Governor might reinstate the restrictions. But he also might not,” Justice Roberts wrote, saying it is “a significant matter to override determinations made by public health officials.”
Critics of Wednesday’s decision contended that Mr. Cuomo’s actions had not infringed on religious freedom and that the Supreme Court’s ruling could have dangerous public health consequences.
“The freedom to worship is one of our most cherished fundamental rights,” Daniel Mach, the director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s freedom of religion and belief program, said in a statement, “but it does not include a license to harm others or endanger public health.”
Less stringent 25-person capacity restrictions, also rejected by the Supreme Court’s decision, are still in place in six other counties, including Richmond County on Staten Island.
Legal experts say the court’s ruling could be used to challenge those and other rules elsewhere. “The decision is applicable to people in similar situations,” said Norman Siegel, a constitutional lawyer and former leader of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It’s applicable to any synagogue, any church, to any mosque, to any religious setting.”
Still, Beth Garvey, Mr. Cuomo’s counsel, said that the state believed the court’s opinion only affected the now-lapsed restrictions in Brooklyn, and that the rules in the other six zones would remain intact.
She said that officials would “be looking around the state at the other zones” while also suggesting the state would continue to argue its case at in the lower courts.
The decision represented something of a Thanksgiving gift for Catholic and Orthodox Jewish leaders, who had blasted Mr. Cuomo’s rules as a profound and unfair restriction on the freedom of religion.
“I have said from the beginning the restrictions imposed by Governor Cuomo were an overreach that did not take into account the size of our churches or the safety protocols that have kept parishioners safe,” said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn on Thursday morning, noting that Catholics had adhered to coronavirus safety protocols at Mass since the virus first emerged in New York in March.
The joy at the high court’s decision was shared in Orthodox Jewish enclaves, which had been a focal point of the restrictions last month, after spikes of coronavirus cases in those communities.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella group which had also sued to overturn the rules, called the decision historic, saying it “will ensure that religious practices and religious institutions will be protected from government edicts.”
The governor’s restrictions had led to angry protests in some Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods and even became an issue in the presidential race, when Mr. Trump suggested on Twitter that the unrest and the police response was emblematic of the “radical left.” On Thursday, the president tweeted a report about the Supreme Court’s decision, with a two-word, all-caps message: “HAPPY THANKSGIVING!”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn requested an injunction from the Supreme Court on Nov. 9, after losing challenges at lower federal levels, saying that Mr. Cuomo’s order ran “roughshod over” the rights of Catholic parishioners.
In particular, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn had asked the courts for relief from two restrictions in places where infection rates were high. In so-called red zones, houses of worship were limited to 10 people or 25 percent of their building’s capacity, whichever number was less. In orange zones, a 25-person cap — or a 33 percent of capacity limit — was announced.
Last week, Bishop DiMarzio said that the rules effectively closed churches in red and orange zones — some of which can accommodate hundreds of parishioners — a concern that was also expressed by Jewish leaders regarding their synagogues.
Mr. Cuomo, a Catholic, asked for understanding from the church and Jewish organizations, saying that the restrictions were necessary to stem the second wave of the virus.
In recent weeks, the governor has also announced a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people in private residences and has imposed a statewide curfew of 10 p.m. for bars, restaurants and gyms.
Still, the second wave has arrived: On Thursday, the state had more than 3,000 people in the hospital with Covid-19 and tallied 67 deaths, the highest daily toll since mid-June.
The legal dispute between the state and religious leaders has been animated by tensions dating back to March over what secular officials consider to be an important service at a time of crisis.
“We are essential to the spiritual health of people,” Bishop DiMarzio said last week. “Bodily health is important, but we are essential also, and we’re being considered not essential. And that’s why these restrictions were put on us.”
Adam Liptak and Rick Rojas contributed reporting.