Supreme Court rejects Nev. church’s appeal to lift state’s limits on worship gatherings

Gov. Steve Sisolak not imposing same restrictions on casinos in cities where COVID-19 infections are highest

An attendee raises his hands to the sky during a drive-in Easter service amid the Coronavirus pandemic at the International Church of Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sunday, April 12, 2020. | AFP via Getty Images/BRIDGET BENNETT

The Supreme Court has rejected the plea of a Nevada congregation to suspend state-imposed restrictions on in-person gatherings that only apply to faith communities and not secular entities.

In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts joined liberal justices to deny an appeal of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in Lyon County, whose plea had been rejected by lower courts, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The church argued that Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s public-health orders gave casinos and other secular businesses greater leeway than houses of worship, which are prohibited from conducting in-person worship services with more than 50 people.

Calvary Chapel wanted to hold services for up to 90 members, 50% capacity, while fully complying with social-distancing rules and other required measures.

The judges made no comment while rejecting the appeal.

This is the second time that Chief Justice Roberts has joined liberal justices to uphold restrictions on churches during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a one-page dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote: “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.”

Sisolak argued that casinos were allowed to function with up to 50% of their capacity because the gambling industry is regulated and has on-premises enforcement officers, while houses of worship are unregulated.

In the principal dissent, Justice Samuel Alito, along with Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, wrote, “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.”

Of Nevada's 41,993 reported COVID-19 cases, 35,786 are concentrated around Las Vegas, and 4,724 are around Reno. Lyon County, where the church is located, has 169 reported cases as of Sunday morning. 

“The risk of COVID-19 exposure is greater at a restaurant than it is at a house of worship like Calvary Chapel that practices social distancing, eliminates coffee and snacks, and passes nothing person-to-person,” the church’s lawsuit stated. “Courts agree that assemblies at restaurants and houses of worship are comparable. Yet the governor’s directive limits all religious gatherings to 50 people regardless of seating capacity, social distancing, or any other pertinent factor.”

Calvary Chapel was represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative law firm that frequently handles religious liberty litigation.

The appeal argued that Sisolak had been inconsistent in his enforcement of the restrictions, noting that the governor openly supported recent large-scale protests. “When hundreds of protestors gathered in packed throngs in blatant violation of the directive’s ban on gatherings over 50 (§ 10), the Governor and Attorney General tweeted their support.”

The suit added, “They took no action to impose the directive or enforce social-distancing rules. Calvary Chapel supports protestors’ right to free speech; it just wants to live by the same rules.”

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