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US Supreme Court orders review of New Jersey restrictions on houses of worship

Similar measures to also be reevaluated in lower court in Colorado, following decision by justices to overturn New York’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings

In this file photo taken on December 7, 2020 The US Supreme Court is seen in Washington, DC (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)
In this file photo taken on December 7, 2020 The US Supreme Court is seen in Washington, DC (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

JTA — For the second time in three weeks, the US Supreme Court indicated Tuesday that state governments may not restrict religious gatherings more strictly than secular ones due to the pandemic.

Responding to an appeal by a New Jersey priest and an Orthodox rabbi, the high court in a unanimous opinion instructed an appellate court to review their claim that the rules laid down by Governor Phil Murphy on limiting religious gatherings to 150 people or 25 percent of a room’s capacity, whichever number is lower, constituted religious discrimination.

The court ordered a similar challenge to the restrictions in Colorado.

The order comes just weeks after the court blocked restrictions by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on religious gatherings in the state’s red zones — areas with rising COVID cases.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy during a news conference after witnessing the first coronavirus vaccinations at University Hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, New Jersey, December 15, 2020 (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In that case, brought by the Catholic Church’s Brooklyn Diocese and the Orthodox Jewish umbrella group Agudath Israel and decided by the court’s new conservative majority, the court ruled that New York’s pandemic restrictions could not be stricter for religious institutions than for secular ones.

“It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion in that case.

No reason was given for the New Jersey ruling, but it was ordered to be reevaluated “in light of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.”

The rabbi in the New Jersey case was Yisrael Knopfler of Lakewood, who was arrested in May and charged with holding a gathering in violation of the governor’s orders as well as resisting arrest.

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