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Supreme Court Rejects Nevada Church Challenge on Virus Rules (1)

July 25, 2020, 12:19 AM

A divided U.S. Supreme Court rejected an effort by a Nevada church to ease limits on the size of its services during the coronavirus pandemic.

Voting 5-4, the justices rebuffed Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a Reno-area church that said the state was unconstitutionally discriminating by imposing stricter requirements on church services than on Las Vegas casinos. The state’s order limits indoor church services to 50 people, and the church said it wanted to accommodate as many as 90.

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberals in the majority. The court as a whole gave no explanation, though Roberts said in an earlier case that judges must give elected officials wide latitude to make health and safety judgments during a pandemic.

Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh dissented. saying they would have let the church hold larger services while the case went forward on appeal.

“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,” Alito wrote.

The rebuff marks the court’s latest refusal to exempt religious services from crowd-size limitations imposed by state officials looking to combat the virus outbreak. The justices in May refused to block restrictions in California and Illinois.

“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,” Roberts wrote at the time.

Discrimination Claim

Calvary Chapel argued that religious services are being subjected to discrimination because gatherings at some locations, including casinos, are limited to half their fire-code capacity while services at places of worship are capped at 50, no matter their facilities’ size.

“Thousands of people swarmed around gaming tables and slot machines for long periods at 50% capacity,” the church said in papers filed with the court.

Nevada officials counter that the state is treating religious organizations the same or better than other mass gatherings because some venues like movie theaters and museums are limited to 50% of occupancy or 50 people, whichever is less. Audiences are prohibited at concerts.

Casinos are subject to restrictions that are more extensive than for religious gatherings, the state argued, including providing masks for customers and designated locations for Covid-19 testing. Nevada’s gaming regulator has required masks at card and game tables if there is no other barrier.

“Choosing to reopen a highly regulated industry, that is subject to significant regulatory control that allows for a rapid shutdown if a second Covid-19 outbreak arises, makes sense,” state officials said.

The case is Calvary Chapel v. Sisolak, 19A1070.

(Updates with excerpt from Alito opinion in fifth paragraph)

To contact the reporters on this story:
Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net;
David McLaughlin in Washington at dmclaughlin9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net

Elizabeth Wasserman

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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