Quick Thoughts on the Recent Supreme Court Decision in Nevada

The Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 against a Nevada church who argued that a policy limiting church attendance to 50 during the coronavirus pandemic violated the Constitution.

One must be cautious when offering opinions on topics that involve certain areas of expertise and depth of knowledge necessary to form a cogent argument. The insight necessary to evaluate cases at the Supreme Court level certainly qualify as one of those topics. So, I offer these comments fully aware of my own deficiencies in the world of law.

The problem I have is not so much with the state determining what can and can’t happen during a pandemic. Thankfully, most pastors I know agree that the government has the right to take action in order to properly serve and protect the public well-being. Churches are not immune from those actions. However, there is the necessity for governmental restrictions to be generally applicable (consistent and not specifically targeted at religious institutions or practices).

In Nevada, it appears that casinos, bars, and other places of entertainment have had a 50% restriction based on capacity, while churches have been restricted to 50 people total. The Supreme Court upheld this distinction in their most recent ruling. Per CNN, Attorneys for the state argued “that the policy — aimed at limiting the amount of people who congregate — must be different from policies for ‘individual engagement in commerce.'”

And that is difficult for me to understand. Somehow “individual engagement in commerce” allows for congregating in the hundreds, while church congregations are severely limited. Can the argument not be made that individuals come to church to worship? The motivator, of course, is the phrase “engagement in commerce.” But the church cannot be treated differently through pandemic restrictions simply because she does not make money for the state.

I want to be clear. If all institutions, including bars and casinos, were limited to 50 people (like the churches are), then I would have no problem with the mandate. Likewise, if churches were limited to 50% of their capacity (like bars and casinos are), I would have no problem with that mandate either. I might not agree with it, but I would emphatically argue that the churches should comply since the mandate would be consistently applied. Religious liberty doesn’t mean we, as God’s people, enjoy more rights than others. But it certainly means we enjoy the same. As a matter of fact, maybe some churches would limit their gatherings to 50 people simply because they feel it is best for their congregation. But opting to do that is quite different than being forced while others do not have the same restrictions.

In his dissent, Justice Alito wrote, “the Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion…It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or black-jack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance…”

In his own dissent, Justice Gorsuch wrote “there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”

Churches and pastors who ignore the mandates of their government during a pandemic as a means of showing steadfast rebellion against it are reckless. I love the freedom my country allows me, and without the work of the government and its various agencies, there would be no freedom. But thanksgiving for our government and overall trust in their work does not come without limits. When there are missteps, abuse of power, and inconsistencies, Christians have a right and responsibility to say so – and to say it in a way that points people to Jesus, not turn them away from him.

And that’s the rub. I am convinced that there is a way we can hold fast to our convictions – both theological and political – without fueling the stereotype that the Church of Jesus Christ is an angry, ignorant, unthinking, uncaring group of disillusioned hypocrites. That’s not who we are. And if our primary concern is the souls of people, then we need to act like it, even when our rights are threatened or denied, and even as we faithfully work to restore them.