Supreme Court decides against Nevada church fighting to overturn attendance limit

The decision was 5-4.

The church argued that the state policy treated church services differently from other large gatherings including casinos, gyms and restaurants.

A lower court had ruled against the church.

Although the court’s order was unsigned, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch dissented, meaning that Chief Justice John Roberts provided the necessary fifth vote by joining the liberals on the bench.

The order marks the second time Roberts has voted to reject a request from a church amid the pandemic.

In May, he sided with the liberals in a 5-4 order against a church in California that was challenging limitations on the number of people who could attend services.

The Nevada decision highlighted Roberts’ recurring pivotal role on the bench this term. He sided with the court’s four liberal justices on high-profile cases on immigration, LGBTQ rights and abortion, while still handing the Trump administration’s long sought wins favoring religious employers and presidential authority — establishing himself as one of the most influential figures in America today.
The thrust to reopen churches in particular has become one of the latest debates in the Covid-19 culture wars. In May, President Donald Trump called on governors to reopen religious institutions for services, even threatening to “override” governors if their states did not follow new guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As cities across the country have been gradually reopening, some churches have argued that they are being treated differently than other businesses or groups.

In the Nevada case, lawyers for the state argued that the policy — aimed at limiting the amount of people who congregate — must be different from policies for “individual engagement in commerce.” The policy limits mass gatherings to 50 people.

“Temporarily narrowing restrictions on the size of mass gatherings, including for religious services, protects the health and well-being of Nevada citizens during a global pandemic,” the state argued.

Alito, writing one dissent that was joined by Thomas and Kavanaugh, said 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,” he said.

Alito charged that Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, “apparently has different priorities.”

“A public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists,” Alito wrote.

Gorsuch wrote his own dissent, noting that the state’s policy handles movie houses and casinos differently from churches.

“The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges,” Gorsuch wrote.

“But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel,” he added.

The ruling comes after Sisolak paused the state’s reopening last month, saying Nevada would remain in phase two during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sisolak’s office issued a statement in June saying the governor “will sign an emergency directive extending the length of Phase 2 through the end of July, due to the trends in COVID-19 infection rates, the time needed for expanded contact tracing to identify trends, and to see the impacts of the Governor’s new face covering directive.”

The statement from his office said at the time that if statewide trends do not improve or get worse, Sisolak “will not hesitate to take any action necessary to protect the public and prevent exceeding our hospital capacity, including reinstituting previous restrictions.”

Nevada has seen 40,885 cases and 722 deaths from the virus and faced rising case numbers for multiple weeks, according to data from John Hopkins University.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Dave Alsup and Joan Biskupic contributed to this report.

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