The U.S. Supreme Court on July 24 denied a petition from a church in Nevada that argued a coronavirus-related policy limiting in-person church attendance to 50 people—regardless of building size or precautions taken—while giving casinos and other nonessential businesses much broader allowances, violates the Constitution.
In a 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court’s four liberal members to form a majority vote, the high court refused to grant the request from Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley to abide by the same COVID-19 restrictions the state of Nevada has in place that allow casinos, restaurants and other businesses to operate at 50% capacity with proper social distancing.
“This is a simple case,” said Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, in his dissent. “Under the Governor’s edict, a 10-screen ‘multiplex’ may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps six people huddled at each craps table here and a similar number gathered around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But churches, synagogues and mosques are banned from admitting more than 50 worshippers—no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear face masks, no matter the precautions at all.”
Franklin Graham remarked on Facebook: “In his dissent, Justice Alito summed it up powerfully. He wrote, ‘The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance. … We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility.’”
“Our constitutional rights do not disappear during a pandemic,” said Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal organization representing the church. “While Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley and other churches in Nevada will continue to be limited to less than 50 people in their services for now, this does not mean the end of the lawsuit. It will continue in a lower court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the bar will be lower than when seeking emergency relief pending an appeal.”
“In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion,” Gorsuch said. “Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, 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.”
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