RENO, Nevada – A widely divided U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request by a rural Nevada church to overturn a 50-person cap on worship services as unconstitutional as part of the state’s continued response to the coronavirus.
In a 5-4 decision, the high court refused to grant the Christian church’s request east of Reno to be subject to the same COVID-19 restrictions in Nevada that allow casinos, restaurants and other businesses to function at 50% of their capacity with good social distance.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley argued that the cap on religious gatherings was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment rights of its parishioners to express and exercise their beliefs.
Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the Liberal majority in dismissing the request without explanation.
Three judges wrote strongly worded dissenting opinions on behalf of the four Tories who said they would have granted the injunction while the court fully examines the merits of the case.
“That Nevada discriminates in favor of the powerful gaming industry and its employees may not come as a surprise, but the court’s willingness to allow such discrimination is disappointing,” Judge Samuel Alito wrote in a dissent with Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh.
“We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not exempt us from this responsibility,” Alito said. “The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It doesn’t say anything about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, feed chips into a slot machine, or participate in any other game of chance.
Kavanaugh also wrote his own dissent, as did Judge Neil Gorsuch, who said the world today “with a pandemic upon us poses unusual challenges.”
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“But there is no world in which the Constitution allows Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel,” Gorsuch wrote.
David Cortman, senior counsel for the Georgia-based Defending Freedom Alliance, representing the church, said in an email to The Associated Press on Friday night that they were disappointed with the decision, but will continue to work to protect Calvary Chapel and others “against discriminatory policies that put religious groups on the line for reopening.”
“When the government treats churches worse than casinos, gyms and indoor amusement parks in its response to COVID-19, it is clearly breaking the Constitution,” he said.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month after a U.S. judge in Nevada upheld state policy that allows casinos and other businesses to operate at 50 % of their normal capacity.
The San Francisco appeals court is still considering the appeal, but it has denied the church’s request for an emergency injunction in the meantime. Its July 2 ruling underscored the Supreme Court’s refusal in May to overturn California’s limit on the size of religious gatherings.
The church in Lyon County, Nevada, appealed to the Supreme Court six days later, seeking an emergency injunction prohibiting the state from applying the cap to religious gatherings at least temporarily while judges consider the bottom line.
“The governor allows hundreds to thousands of people to come together in search of financial fortunes, but only 50 to come together in pursuit of spiritual fortunes. It’s unconstitutional, ”his lawyers wrote in their latest High Court filing last week.
The church wants to allow as many as 90 people to attend services at the same time – with required masks, seated 6 feet apart – in the 200-capacity shrine. Other secular businesses around the world State that are licensed to operate at half capacity includes gymnasiums, hair salons, bowling alleys and water parks.
Nevada lawyers said last week that several courts across the country have followed the Supreme Court’s lead in upholding the state’s power to impose emergency restrictions in response to COVID-19.
“Temporarily reducing restrictions on the size of mass gatherings, including for religious services, protects the health and well-being of Nevada citizens during a global pandemic,” they wrote.
Alito said in the main dissent that by allowing thousands of people to congregate in casinos, the state cannot claim to have a compelling interest in limiting religious gatherings to 50 people – regardless of the size of the ‘installation and measures adopted to prevent the spread of the virus. .
“The idea that allowing Calvary Chapel to admit 90 followers poses a greater risk to public health than allowing casinos to operate at 50% of their capacity is hard to swallow,” he wrote.
Kavanaugh said he agreed that courts should be “very different from the course of states to open businesses and allow certain activities during the pandemic.”
“But COVID-19 is not a blank check for a state to discriminate against clerics, religious organizations and religious services,” he wrote in his own dissent. “Nevada discriminates against religion.”