by Scott Sooner
RENO, Nevada (AP) — 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.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley appealed to the 9th 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% 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 church in Nevada’s 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.
“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,” its lawyers wrote in their most recent filing to the high court last week.
Nevada’s lawyers said last week several courts nationwide have followed the Supreme Court’s lead in upholding state authority to impose emergency restrictions in response to COVID-19.
“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,” they wrote.
Kavanaugh said Nevada’s policy constitutes “overt discrimination against places of worship.”
“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,” he wrote.
Gorsuch 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,” he wrote.
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Scott Sooner is a reporter for The Associated Press.