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US Supreme Court Rules Against Nevada Church on Attendance Cap During COVID-19

07-25-2020
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Supreme Court of the United States at Sunset

Above: Ryan Tucker, senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries with Alliance Defending Freedom appeared on Monday's edition of CBN News' Faith Nation to explain the court's decision. Faith Nation is seen weekdays on the CBN News Channel.

The Supreme Court has rejected a Nevada church's request to strike down a state restriction limiting attendance at religious services as unconstitutional.

In a 5 to 4 ruling Friday against the request filed by Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, the high court upheld the limit of 50 people in houses of worship due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The church, which is located east of Reno, argues that the state is treating churches unfairly compared to casinos, restaurants, and entertainment parks.

Those businesses can be open at up to 50 percent capacity with social distancing, which can easily mean far more people than the 50 people allowed in religious services. The church’s lawyers pointed out the discrepancy in their latest filing to the Supreme Court last week.

“The governor allows hundreds to thousands to assemble in pursuit of financial fortunes but only 50 to gather in pursuit of spiritual ones. That is unconstitutional,” they wrote to the high court.

Chief Justice John Roberts supported the liberal majority in opposing the request without comment. But three of the four opposing justices, Neil Gorsuch, Bret Kavanaugh, and Samuel Alito, wrote strong dissents.

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“We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility,” wrote Alito, joined by Clarence Thomas and Kavanaugh. “The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance.”

Kavanaugh said in his dissent he agrees “courts should be very deferential to the States' line-drawing in opening businesses and allowing certain activities during the pandemic."

"But COVID-19 is not a blank check for a state to discriminate against religious people, religious organizations, and religious services," he wrote. "Nevada is discriminating against religion."

And Gorsuch wrote “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.”

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows agreed with Gorsuch, tweeting: “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.

“This Supreme Court ruling would be a supreme disappointment to our founding fathers.”

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit religious freedom law firm representing the church, said they were disappointed by the ruling but will continue to pursue protection for houses of worship that face "discriminatory policies that put religious groups at the back of the line for reopening."

"When the government treats churches worse than casinos, gyms, and indoor amusement parks in its COVID-19 response, it clearly violates the Constitution," said Senior Counsel David Cortman.

The church, which has a capacity of 200, is asking for attendance of up to 90 people while following the safety guidelines of mask-wearing and social distancing.

ADF Attorney Jeremiah Galus explained, "There's nowhere else where thousands and hundreds of people can gather in close proximity for extended periods of time like in a casino, in bars, in amusement parks, water parks. All these places that are being treated better than place of worship."

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