A cornerstone of our constitutional protection of freedoms is explicitly stated in the First Amendment, using the most absolute of language: The government shall make "no law" prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
No law means none, not one, not at all, to no extent.
Even in a state of emergency, or similar crisis situations where the people are in imminent peril and government must act decisively to protect them--perhaps by temporary suspension of rights--it cannot discriminate against religion in doing so.
So when Nevada issued its Phase 2 reopening directives on May 28 and limited church congregations to gatherings of only 50 people, but allowed casino crowds to converge in the thousands, it rightly ruffled some religious feathers.
Flocks had been fairly understanding and compliant in mid-March, when Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a statewide coronavirus emergency.
At that time, fears of a deadly pandemic like the one in 1918 were rampant. But two months and terabytes of more data analysis later, when everyone had learned that covid-19 was not that kind of killer, the faithful expected the state to adjust its policies accordingly.
On May 14, nearly 200 church pastor signatories from diverse denominations sent a responsible letter to the governor requesting that he lift the ban limiting in-person worship services, "so long as each church develops, implements, and maintains a safety plan that adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines."
Instead, not only were casino-goers given precedence over church attendees, but so were Black Lives Matter protesters, who were allowed (even encouraged by state officials) to openly violate Nevada's social-distancing mandate.
A church in rural Lyon County, Calvary Chapel, filed for a restraining order to prohibit Nevada from enforcing the ban. That lawsuit wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the injunction request was denied on July 24 in a 5-4 decision without comment from the majority.
It's important to note that the court didn't rule on the issue itself, but only the appeal for a restraining order. Calvary Chapel or other churches may yet have their full day in court over First Amendment violations.
Still, it's discouraging to see five justices so casually abandon what dissenting colleague Neil Gorsuch called a "simple case" involving such an inviolate right and Nevada's blatant discriminatory attitude.
"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."
Justice Samuel Alito wrote an exceptionally logical dissent, lamenting the court's denial and poking huge holes in Nevada's dubious defense arguments.
"The idea that allowing Calvary Chapel to admit 90 worshippers presents a greater public health risk than allowing casinos to operate at 50 percent capacity is hard to swallow," he wrote, "and the State's efforts to justify the discrimination are feeble."
For example, Nevada claimed that because casinos were more regulated than churches, it could allow larger crowds there since state authorities provided closer supervision for compliance enforcement than local officials would for houses of worship.
"While the State suggests that it strictly enforces the rules applicable to casinos," he wrote, "photos and videos taken in casinos after they were allowed to reopen show widespread and blatant safety violations. Patrons without masks are seen at close quarters, and the State has not brought to our attention any evidence it has cracked down on non-complying casinos."
Even if the court accepted the casino exception, Alito wrote, how explain the same preferential 50 percent rule for bowling alleys, breweries, arcades and fitness centers that are not as closely regulated?
He ridiculed the state's attempt at redirection--Nevada pointed out that in addition to churches it also treated museums, art galleries, zoos, and aquariums less favorably than casinos--as "obviously" failing to justify preferential treatment for gaming outfits.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined in Alito's dissent and also penned his own, homing in on that same point.
"The legal question is not whether religious worship services are all alone in a disfavored category, but why they are in the disfavored category to begin with," he wrote.
Moreover, covid-19 is not a "blank check for a State to discriminate," Kavanaugh wrote. Even in times of crisis, state-sponsored racial discrimination would not be permissible, and neither is religious discrimination.
"Nevada has now had more than four months to respond to the initial covid-19 crisis and adjust its line-drawing as circumstances change," he wrote. "Yet Nevada is still discriminating against religion."
Lyon County, pop. 57,510, has seen 215 coronavirus cases and five deaths (at least two in their 80s) since March.
In 1918, the Spanish Flu preyed heavily on younger victims, age 20 to 40, often bringing fatal lung failure within hours of contracting the virus. Closing churches for that kind of lethal threat is understandable, and acceptable.
But that's not the case with 2020's coronavirus. The greater threat today is the brazen erosion of bedrock rights permitted by five "ayes" from the highest court in the land.
Liberty-loving voters will do well to remember the significance of Supreme Court appointments on Nov. 3.
Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.