Conservative Justices Dissent in Nevada Church Case

On Friday, the Supreme Court denied a Nevada church's emergency application for injunctive relief to allow the church to operate beyond the limit placed on them by Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak.  The church was challenging the Governor's Directive 021 which allows large groups at restaurants, bars, casinos, gyms, bowling alleys, indoor amusement parks, water parks, and pools as long as they remain at a 50% fire-code capacity limit. However, places of worship are limited to a 50-person limit regardless of the available facilities or precautions taken. The church alleges that the Governor's directive violates the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. While the Court's denial of the church's application was a single sentence long, the 4 dissenting Justices wrote 3 separate dissents totaling 24 pages expressing their concerns over the Governor's blatant disregard for religious Nevadans' Constitutional rights.

In Justice Alito's dissent (joined by Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh), he remarked at the Nevada Governor's willingness to prioritize business interests over Constitutional rights and the Majority's surprising complicity with the decision:

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. 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. 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.

That Nevada would discriminate in favor of the powerful gaming industry and its employees may not come as a surprise, 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.

Justice Gorsuch's dissent notes that the COVID-19 pandemic is not an excuse for disregarding Constitutional rights:

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. 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.

Justice Kavanaugh added

In my view, Nevada’s discrimination against religious services violates the Constitution. To be clear, a State’s closing or reopening plan may subject religious organizations to the same limits as secular organizations. And in light of the devastating COVID–19 pandemic, those limits may be very strict. But a State may not impose strict limits on places of worship and looser limits on restaurants, bars, casinos, and gyms, at least without sufficient justification for the differential treatment of religion.

The church's request for an injunction had previously been heard in the Nevada U.S. District Court and the Ninth Circuit before reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. Both courts cited a similar 5-4 decision by the Court in May.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every facet of life, but Constitutional rights should not - and must not - be sacrificed in the process of state governments responding to the crisis.