Last week the Supreme Court declined to issue a preliminary injunction allowing Calvary Chapel in Dayton Valley, Nevada, to hold worship services with up to 90 congregants in its 180-seat sanctuary. Nevada’s policy allows casinos, bowling alleys, breweries and fitness centers to operate at 50 percent capacity, but restricts church assemblies to no more than 50 persons, regardless of seating capacity. A federal district court declined to grant emergency relief, as did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“This is a disappointing decision,” said Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). “Churches should support necessary and equitable regulations that apply across the board, but cannot accept double standards that favor casinos over churches.”
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, most churches have voluntarily taken significant steps to protect parishioners and community members from COVID-19. Adaptations include online services, physical distancing, face masks and enhanced cleaning. The NAE continues to encourage churches to follow the guidance of state and local authorities and to consider going beyond what is publicly mandated in order to protect the lives and health of members and neighbors. Calvary Chapel proposed carefully planned worship services utilizing 50 percent or less of the sanctuary seating, and incorporating many measures recommended by public health officials.
“The First Amendment should have required Nevada to prove that its restrictions on the free exercise of religion were neutral and generally applicable to all similarly situated groups. They did not meet this standard,” Kim said.
The Supreme Court divided 5-4 in declining to intervene. While the majority did not explain their decision, there were dissenting opinions by Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings. Calvary Chapel could still prevail following a trial, but for now they remain subject to the limit of 50 worshippers per service.
Justice Alito began his dissent: “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.” Justice Gorsuch commented, “There is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesar’s Palace over Calvary Chapel.”