People For the American Way

Trump Justices Try Again to Exempt Church From COVID-19 Health Rules: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis
Trump Justices Try Again to Exempt Church From COVID-19 Health Rules: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

Trump Supreme Court justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch wrote their own dissents as the Court’s most conservative justices argued for the second time that the Court should have granted a church’s request to suspend a state rule restricting in-person gatherings to help protect public health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Chief Justice Roberts joined the Court’s  four moderates in rejecting the request in Calvary Chapel v. Sisolak in July 2020.

Like many other states, Nevada has promulgated temporary rules that restrict large in-person gatherings, including in churches, to help protect against transmission of the COVID-19 virus.  Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a Christian church near Carson City, filed suit to contest some of these restrictions as applied to it, and tried to get them suspended as the issue is litigated. The church claimed that it was being treated less favorably than places like casinos and sporting events. The suspension request was denied by a district court and court of appeals, and the issue was brought to the Supreme Court.

The state strongly contested the church’s claims. It pointed out that unlike churches, casinos are highly regulated by the state and face “significant punishment” if they do not fully and promptly comply with restrictions. In fact, the state maintained, religious services receive better treatment in some respects than other mass gatherings under the state’s COVID-19 rules.

In a brief unsigned order, Chief Justice Roberts and the four moderates on the Court denied the suspension request while the litigation continues. The four most conservative justices dissented harshly. Despite the state’s arguments, Justice Gorsuch accused the state of favoring “Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.” Justice Kavanaugh complained that the state was imposing “lesser limits” on “restaurants, bars, casinos, and gyms” than on churches.

Just as in a similar May case , Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, along with Justices Thomas and Alito, are trying to give a church a special exemption from crucial COVID-19 rules, potentially endangering public health and safety, based on a claim that churches are being discriminated against. Fortunately, the Supreme Court majority, including Chief Justice Roberts, again rejected that attempt, and the church will have to try to prove its case in the lower courts.