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Supreme Court tosses Nevada church’s challenge to COVID-19 orders

July 28, 2020

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 on Friday, July 24,  to reject a Nevada church’s plea to overturn state public-health orders limiting attendance at services—marking the second time Chief Justice John Roberts has joined the liberal justices to uphold emergency measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, located east of Reno in Lyon County, Nevada, argued that public-health orders issued by Governor Steve Sisolak (D) allowed casinos and other secular businesses greater leeway than houses of worship—which were capped at 50 people for indoor services, The New York Times reported.

Calvary Chapel sought to conduct services for up to 90 congregants, but pledged to implement various social-distancing rules and other measures to contain COVID-19’s spread.

Governor Sisolak said his order placed fewer restrictions on houses of worship than on movie theaters, museums and zoos. While casinos could admit up to 50% of their capacity, the governor argued that pervasive state regulation of the gambling industry, including on-premises enforcement officers, disqualified them for comparison to unregulated churches.

Lower courts declined to suspend the public-health orders during the church’s lawsuit, prompting the high court appeal, the Times said.

The Supreme Court denied the appeal without comment. Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan comprised the majority.

Four of the more conservative justices dissented, as they did in May when the same majority declined to block similar California orders capping attendance at religious services.

“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,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the principal dissent, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh.

Justice Alito said that at the outbreak of the pandemic, officials should have broad discretion over emergency measures, adding that several months into the health crisis, greater court oversight was called for.

He said it was “hard to swallow” the state’s claim that casino regulators would keep a firm grip on contagion within well-attended gambling palaces while public health required holding the church to a lower limit.

Justice Kavanaugh filed a separate opinion laying out his own views of the case.

Although the majority didn’t elaborate on Friday’s order, in May, Chief Justice Roberts filed an opinion explaining why he voted to uphold Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom’s order capping attendance at indoor church services.

“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,” the chief justice wrote then, adding that the Constitution principally assigns such judgments “to the politically accountable officials of the States.”

Research contact:  @nytimes