In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rejected a Nevada church's request to be subjected to the same COVID-19 restrictions that the state's casinos, restaurants, amusement parks, and other businesses must abide by.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a church 40 miles outside of Reno, argued that it should be able to operate under the same coronavirus rules that other businesses are subjected to. Nevada businesses may operate at 50% of capacity as long as they practice proper social distancing. However, places of worship in Nevada may only host religious gatherings of up to 50 people, no matter the capacity of the building.
The Christian church wants to allow as many as 90 people to attend its religious services. The church will require worshipers to wear face masks and stay six feet apart from one another. The church believes the 50-person cap is an unconstitutional violation of its parishioners' First Amendment rights.
"Temporarily narrowing restrictions on the size of mass gatherings, including for religious services, protects the health and well-being of Nevada citizens during a global pandemic," lawyers for the state of Nevada argued.
A U.S. judge in Nevada upheld the state's policy that allows casinos and other businesses to operate at 50% of maximum capacity but caps congregations at 50 people. Last month, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court in San Francisco is still considering the appeal, but denied the church's plea for an emergency injunction.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley appealed to the Supreme Court and requested an emergency injunction that would temporarily prohibit Nevada from enforcing the 50-person cap on religious gatherings.
"The governor allows hundreds to thousands to assemble in pursuit of financial fortunes but only 50 to gather in pursuit of spiritual ones. That is unconstitutional," the church's lawyers wrote last week in their filing to the Supreme Court.
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the church's request. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal members without explanation.
Three justices wrote strongly worded dissenting opinions on behalf of the four conservative members in favor of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley.
"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.
"We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility," Alito continued. "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."
"A public health emergency does not give governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists," Alito added. "The idea that allowing Calvary Chapel to admit 90 worshipers present a greater public health risk than allowing casinos to operate at 50% capacity is hard to swallow."
"The state has not explained why a 50% occupancy cap is good enough for secular businesses where people congregate in large groups or remain in close proximity for extended periods — such at restaurants, bars, casinos and gyms — but is not good enough for places of worship," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his own dissent.
"But COVID-19 is not a blank check for a state to discriminate against religious people, religious organizations and religious services," Kavanaugh stated. "Nevada is discriminating against religion."
"But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote.
David Cortman, senior counsel for Georgia-based Alliance Defending Freedom representing the church, reacted to the Supreme Court ruling.
"When the government treats churches worse than casinos, gyms, and indoor amusement parks in its COVID-19 response, it clearly violates the Constitution," Cortman told The Associated Press on Friday via email.