The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a Nevada church’s request to block the state’s cap on attendees for religious services amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The court voted 5 to 4 against the request, filed by Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the liberal-leaning justices. The decision keeps in place a limit of 50 people in houses of worship due to the pandemic.
The church had argued the cap was an unfair attack on its First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion. It pointed out that the state allowed higher caps for restaurants and casinos — 50 percent capacity — but would not let its 90-person congregation assemble, even with social distancing protocols. A federal court upheld the state’s policy, and the church sought an appeal last month at the 9th Circuit.
The conservative justices wrote in their dissent that the decision revealed preferential treatment for for-profit enterprises over houses of worship.
“The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges,” Justice Neil Gorsuch, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote. “But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
The Supreme Court’s decision was issued without comment. But in his June 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 — such as museums, movie theaters and concert venues — 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.”
He also rejected the comparison between houses of worship and casinos, pointing out they operate differently and that casinos also remain constricted by substantial Covid-19-related regulations issued by the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
The Supreme Court in May struck down a plea from a San Diego church that California’s lockdown order was inhibiting its right to free religion. That decision also fell narrowly along ideological lines, with Roberts siding with the liberal faction. Roberts argued against the court intervening in states’ responses to a public health crisis.
“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.