The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday denied a petition from Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in Dayton that argued a policy limiting in-person church attendance to 50 during the coronavirus pandemic violated the Constitution.
The decision was 5-4, with Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch dissenting.
The church argued that the state policy treated church services differently from other large gatherings including casinos, gyms and restaurants, while the state argued that church services were treated the same as museums, movie theaters and concert venues.
A lower court had ruled against the church.
In the Nevada case, lawyers for the state argued that the policy — aimed at limiting the amount of people who congregate — must be different from policies for “individual engagement in commerce.” The policy limits mass gatherings to 50 people.
“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,” the state argued.
Alito, writing one dissent that was joined by Thomas and Kavanaugh, said the “Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. “
“It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance,” he said.
Alito charged that Gov. Steve Sisolak “apparently has different priorities.”
“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 wrote.
Gorsuch wrote his own dissent, noting that the state’s policy handles movie houses and casinos differently from churches.
“The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges,” Gorsuch wrote. “But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel,” he added.
The Supreme Court had issued a similar decision by a 5-4 vote against a California church arguing that limits on attendance violated freedom of religion. Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the majority in both cases.
“The precise question of when restrictions on particular social activities should be lifted during the pandemic is a dynamic and fact-intensive matter subject to reasonable disagreement,” Roberts wrote at the time of the California case.
The ruling comes after Sisolak paused the state’s reopening last month, saying Nevada would remain in Phase Two during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month after a U.S. judge in Nevada upheld the state’s policy that allows casinos and other businesses to operate at 50 percent of normal capacity.
The appellate court in San Francisco is still considering the appeal, but it has denied the church’s request for an emergency injunction in the meantime. Its ruling July 2 pointed to the Supreme Court’s refusal in May to strike down California’s limit on the size of religious gatherings.
The Supreme Court’s decision was issued without comment. But in his decision against the church, U.S. District Judge Richard Boulware wrote that other secular institutes that partake in activities similar to a house of worship are also restricted. Other venues with congregating audiences are subject to similar or stricter restrictions, he wrote.
“It is not enough for Calvary to demonstrate that the directive is intermittently not being enforced against secular activities,” Boulware wrote in his decision. “Calvary must also demonstrate that Defendants are only enforcing the directive against places of worship.”
The church in Lyon County appealed to the Supreme Court six days later, asking for an emergency injunction prohibiting the state from enforcing the cap on religious gatherings at least temporarily while the justices consider the merits of the case.
Sisolak’s office issued a statement in June saying the governor “will sign an emergency directive extending the length of Phase 2 through the end of July, due to the trends in COVID-19 infection rates, the time needed for expanded contact tracing to identify trends, and to see the impacts of the governor’s new face covering directive.”
The statement from his office said at the time that if statewide trends do not improve or get worse, Sisolak “will not hesitate to take any action necessary to protect the public and prevent exceeding our hospital capacity, including reinstituting previous restrictions.”
Nevada has seen 40,885 cases and 722 deaths from the virus and faced rising case numbers for multiple weeks, according to data from John Hopkins University.