A divided Supreme Court on Friday evening rejected a request by a rural Nevada church to lift a 50-person cap on religious services.
In a 5-4 ruling, the justices denied the request from the Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a Christian church located outside the state's capital, Carson City, to be held to the same COVID-19 restrictions that allow bars, casinos, gyms, and restaurants to operate at 50% of capacity.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley said the attendance cap on religious services was an unconstitutional violation of its First Amendment right to express region freely. It emphasized the willingness to comply with social distancing rules and also asked to be treated like everyone else.
Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, joined the court's four liberal justices in refusing the church's request without explanation. The majority did not elaborate on their decision.
In a strongly worded dissent accompanied by Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, Justice Samuel Alito wrote it was no surprise that "Nevada would discriminate in favor of the powerful gaming industry and its employees, ...but this Court's willingness to allow such discrimination is disappointing."
"We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility, Alito wrote.
He continued, "For months now, States and their subdivisions have responded to the pandemic by imposing unprecedented restrictions on personal liberty, including the free exercise of religion."
Alito added Washington does not have the ability "to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists."
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote,
"In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion."
David Cortman, senior counsel for Georgia-based Alliance Defending Freedom representing the church, told AP News that "the government treats churches worse than casinos, gyms, and indoor amusement parks in its COVID-19 response, it clearly violates the Constitution," adding that he was very disappointed in the ruling.
Some on social media weren't happy about the ruling:
John Roberts has abandoned his oath.— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) July 25, 2020
But, on the upside, maybe Nevada churches should set up craps tables? Then they could open? https://t.co/6pWoOwg9ts
The SCOTUS decision in the Nevada Church Case is unbelievable. At best, each of the lockdown rules were / are arbitrary so why casinos could be open at 50% and not churches is insanity. Justice Roberts has lost his mind.— Two If By Sea (@WhyNotMeToo2) July 25, 2020
The White House slammed the high court for putting casinos ahead of churches.
In the SCOTUS ruling against Nevada’s Calvary Chapel today, Justice Gorsuch nails it — it’s a sad day for our country when the high court supports casinos and not churches.— Mark Meadows (@MarkMeadows) July 25, 2020
This Supreme Court ruling would be a supreme disappointment to our founding fathers. https://t.co/iGyP8gRSM8