|A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court denied a rural Nevada church’s request late Friday to strike down as unconstitutional a 50-person cap on worship services as part of the state’s ongoing response to the coronavirus.
In a 5-4 decision, the high court refused to grant the request from the Christian church east of Reno to be subjected to the same COVID-19 restrictions in Nevada that allow casinos, restaurants and other businesses to operate at 50% of capacity with proper social distancing.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley argued that the hard cap on religious gatherings was an unconstitutional violation of its parishioners’ First Amendment rights to express and exercise their beliefs.
Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal majority in denying the request without explanation.
Three justices wrote strongly worded dissenting opinions on behalf of the four conservatives who said they would have granted the injunctive relief while the court fully considers the merits of the case.
“That Nevada would discriminate in favor of the powerful gaming industry and its employees may not come as a surprise, but this Court’s willingness to allow such discrimination is disappointing,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in a dissent joined by Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh.
“We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility,” Alito said. “The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine or to engage in any other game of chance.”
Kavanaugh also wrote his own dissent, as did Justice Neil Gorsuch, who said today’s world “with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges.”
“But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel,” Gorsuch wrote.
David Cortman, senior counsel for Georgia-based Alliance Defending Freedom representing the church, said in an email sent to The Associated Press late Friday that they were disappointed in the ruling but will continue to work to protect Calvary Chapel and others “from discriminatory policies that put religious groups at the back of the line for reopening.”
“When the government treats churches worse than casinos, gyms, and indoor amusement parks in its COVID-19 response, it clearly violates the Constitution,” he said.
The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.