In another 5-4 ruling Friday night, the U.S. Supreme Court prevented a Nevada church from expanding its attendance at in-person worship services. The state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, has capped church attendance at 50 people during the pandemic, yet casinos and other for-profit businesses may operate at 50 percent capacity.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a church east of Reno, sued the state because it wanted up to 90 worshipers to meet in its 200-person sanctuary. “The governor allows hundreds to thousands to assemble in pursuit of financial fortunes but only 50 to gather in pursuit of spiritual ones,” said lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the church. “That is unconstitutional.”
Dissenters: Constitution Protects Religion, Not Gambling
Chief Justice John Roberts again sided with the liberal justices, deferring to elected state officials and their public health orders. Though the majority didn’t comment on Friday’s ruling, several justices issued strong dissents.
“We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility,” writes Justice Samuel Alito. “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.”
Dissenting Justice Neil Gorsuch writes, “In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
The church’s legal team argued that the state is enforcing health orders inconsistently. Restaurants, it points out, are comparable to church gatherings, yet Nevada’s dining establishments can now operate at 50 percent capacity. Recent large-scale protests also violated restrictions on large gatherings, say church lawyers.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows tweeted that the ruling “would be a supreme disappointment to our founding fathers.”
Nevada: Casinos, Unlike Churches, Are Regulated
Gov. Sisolak argued that Nevada’s gambling industry is highly regulated, with on-site enforcement officials. Churches, however, are unregulated, leaving them to practice safety measures such as social distancing on the honor system.
In his dissent Friday, Justice Samuel Alito writes that the governor’s regulation argument is “hard to swallow.” He also notes that as a health emergency progresses, governmental decisions should face increasing scrutiny by courts.
When a lower court ruled against Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley last month, the judge wrote, “It is not enough for Calvary to demonstrate that the directive is intermittently not being enforced against secular activities. Calvary must also demonstrate that Defendants are only enforcing the directive against places of worship.”
In May, a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling quashed a California church’s request to be exempt from strict health orders. California Gov. Gavin Newsom actually gave houses of worship more favorable treatment than businesses. In Nevada, however, “there’s a plausible argument that [the state] does single out places of worship for inferior treatment that’s not imposed on many comparable secular spaces,” according to Vox writer Ian Millhiser. He adds that Chief Justice Roberts “appears to be willing to defer to [state] officials even when they hand down public health orders that draw constitutionally dubious lines.”