The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request from a church in Nevada to block enforcement of state restrictions on attendance at religious services.
The vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the court's four more liberal members to form a majority.
The court's brief order was unsigned and gave no reasons, which is typical when the justices act on emergency applications. The court's four more conservative members filed three dissents, totaling 24 pages.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in Dayton, Nev., argued that the state treated houses of worship less favorably than it did casinos, restaurants and amusement parks. Those businesses have been limited to 50% of their fire-code capacities, while houses of worship have been subject to a flat 50-person limit.
Justice Samuel Alito, in a dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, wrote that the distinction made no sense.
"The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion," he wrote. "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. But the governor of Nevada apparently has different priorities."
"A public health emergency does not give governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists," Alito wrote.
The court considered a similar objection from a California church in May, and it rejected it by the same 5-4 vote. But Alito, who dissented in the previous case, said this one was more troubling in light of the differing treatment of casinos and churches.
"That Nevada would discriminate in favor of the powerful gaming industry and its employees may not come as a surprise," he wrote, "but this court's willingness to allow such discrimination is disappointing."
In a second dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the case was simple.
"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."
In his own dissent, Kavanaugh agreed that the case was straightforward.
"Nevada's 50-person attendance cap on religious worship services puts praying at churches, synagogues, temples and mosques on worse footing than eating at restaurants, drinking at bars, gambling at casinos or biking at gyms," he wrote. "In other words, Nevada is discriminating against religion."
In addition to the chief justice, the justices in the majority were Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco cited the Supreme Court's order in the California case in denying the Nevada church's request for an injunction while its appeal moved forward.
In his concurring opinion in the California case, Roberts said state officials must have flexibility to make judgments about public health.
Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh noted dissents in the California case.
"The church and its congregants simply want to be treated equally to comparable secular businesses," Kavanaugh wrote in an opinion joined by Thomas and Gorsuch. "California already trusts its residents and any number of businesses to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices."
"The state cannot," Kavanaugh wrote, quoting from an appeals court decision in a different case, "'assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work or go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings.'"