(CN) — In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday evening declined to review a Nevada church’s emergency injunction that claimed limiting in-person church attendance to 50 violated the parishioners’ constitutional rights.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a rural church east of Reno, argued that the state treated religious services differently than casinos, gyms, restaurants and other businesses allowed to stay open with social distancing practices during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal justices in rejecting the church’s request. He previously sided with them in a similar case out of California earlier in May.
Three of the four conservative justices offered harsh written dissents. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a scathing rebuke of the Nevada law, criticizing state leadership.
“We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility,” Alito said. “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.”
In his own dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch accused the state of playing favorites.
“The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges,” he wrote. “But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel,” he added.
The Ninth Circuit is currently overseeing the church’s appeal, but previously denied its request for an emergency injunction on July 2. The church appealed to the Supreme Court six days after.
In a court filing made to the high court last week, lawyers for the church called Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak’s order “unconstitutional.”
“The governor allows hundreds to thousands to assemble in pursuit of financial fortunes but only 50 to gather in pursuit of spiritual ones,” its lawyers wrote in their most recent filing to the high court last week.
The church is asking for as many as 90 people to be able to attend services with masks and spread 6-feet apart.
Lawyers for the state said in a court filing last week that Nevada is using its authority to protect its residents.
“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,” they wrote.