Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal justices in the split 5-4 ruling. Three of the court’s conservatives justices filed dissenting opinions.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley sued the Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, alleging that he placed an unfair limit on churches compared to casinos, restaurants and amusement parks. Nevada restricted the number of attendees at churches to 50 while allowing other businesses to operate at half capacity.
“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. But the Governor of Nevada apparently has different priorities,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his dissenting opinion (pdf).
“Claiming virtually unbounded power to restrict constitutional rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, he has issued a directive that severely limits attendance at religious services,” he added. “A church, synagogue, or mosque, regardless of its size, may not admit more than 50 persons, but casinos and certain other favored facilities may admit 50% of their maximum occupancy—and in the case of gigantic Las Vegas casinos, this means that thousands of patrons are allowed.”
A district court and an appeals court had previously rejected the church’s argument. The chapel said it wanted to let 90 people attend services with social distancing measures in place. Nevada denied it treated churches differently from other businesses.
“This is a simple case,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a 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,” Gorsuch added. “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. In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion.”
In May, the Supreme Court rejected a California’s church’s request to block the enforcement of a similar state edict. Justice Roberts had also sided with the liberals on the bench in a 5-4 ruling.
In the California case, lawyers for the South Bay United Pentecostal Church argued that the order violated the First Amendment’s religious exercise clause and discriminated against places of worship because “no comparable let alone equal limitations” are imposed on secular activities such as manufacturing, retail merchandising, or marijuana or liquor dispensaries.
Roberts opined that it isn’t the role of the federal judiciary to be second-guessing officials who appear to be acting in good faith while making decisions about public health.
“Where those broad limits are not exceeded, they should not be subject to second-guessing by an ‘unelected federal judiciary,’ which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people,” Robert said.
Janita Kan contributed to this report.