In a 5-4 decision Friday, the Supreme Court denied a request from a Nevada church to block enforcement of state restrictions on attendance at religious services due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The church argued that the policy, which limited in-person church attendance to 50 people, violated the constitution by treating church services differently than other large gatherings such as casinos, gyms and restaurants.
Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal justices in denying the request, marking the second time the chief justice has voted to reject a church’s request during the pandemic. He also lent his vote to the liberals in a 5-4 decision against a California church challenging limitations on the number of people who could attend services back in May.
Attorneys for Nevada argued that the state’s policy — which Democratic governor Steve Sisolak extended through July last month when he paused the state’s reopening in Phase 2, limiting mass gatherings to 50 people — must be different from policies for “individual engagement in commerce.”
“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 said.
The governor had extended the Phase 2 restrictions “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,” he added that he would “not hesitate to take any action necessary to protect the public and prevent exceeding our hospital capacity, including reinstituting previous restrictions.”
Coronavirus cases had been on the rise in Nevada for several weeks, with the state now having seen 42,843 reported cases and 734 deaths.
In his dissent Alito, joined by Thomas and Kavanaugh, wrote that the “Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion.”
“It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or black-jack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance,” he said. “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.”
In his own dissent, Gorsuch pointed out the inconsistencies in the state’s policy, noting that movie houses and casinos were subject to different rules than churches.
“The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges,” he wrote. “But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel,” he added.
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