The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling concerning government restrictions on church attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic was long overdue but should not be viewed as a license to be irresponsible.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had imposed strict limits on the number of people who could attend in-person services at houses of worship in his state. The restrictions were challenged in court by the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel.

The high court's ruling a week ago said "the restrictions would violate religious freedom and are not neutral because they 'single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment,” according to a report by NBC News. NBC reports the court found "no evidence that the organizations that brought the lawsuit have contributed to the spread of COVID-19."

According to NBC, the court determined that "while religious institutions were affected, businesses categorized as essential could admit as many people as they wish."

This is a huge win for the First Amendment and religious freedom.

New York was not alone in setting strict guidelines for attendance at houses of worship. Some states and local communities banned in-person worship services, even threatening those who participated with arrest and or fines.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell imposed tough restrictions of their own with little pushback from local church leaders.

Baker said in a news conference on Tuesday that in-person worship services pose a risk of transmitting the virus. "Our data still found there are too many clusters that stem from houses of worship, and these cases spread out into the community at large," Baker said.

According to the State House News Service, Baker had advice for the faithful: "If you're going to get together with people you don't normally spend time with, be safe. Wear the mask. Encourage them to wear the mask. Keep your distance. Wash your hands. Don't share food and beverage. Treat it a little more formally than you might normally."

Baker's advice is sound. It is incumbent upon religious leaders to be sure that safety measures are enforced. The government has no right to dictate how we practice our religion, but we as practitioners are obliged to do our best to keep our community safe from harm.

Barry Richard is the host of The Barry Richard Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. Contact him at barry@wbsm.com and follow him on Twitter @BarryJRichard58. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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