IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Supreme Court declines to take up pandemic restrictions on worship services

Since the pandemic began, the court has shifted ground on deferring to state restrictions intended to slow the spread of the virus.
Christmas Mass will be celebrated outdoors at Christ Cathedral and also will be livestreamed
Parishioners attend a Christmas Day Mass given outdoors and livestreamed in Garden Grove, Calif., on Dec. 25.Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

The Supreme Court declined Monday to consider how far states can go without violating religious freedom when they impose restrictions on attendance at worship services to slow the spread of Covid-19.

In a one-line order, the court said it would not hear an appeal from Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a church in western Nevada that has been battling pandemic restrictions imposed by Gov. Steve Sisolak. The rules originally allowed casinos, restaurants and other businesses to operate at 50 percent capacity while limiting churches to no more than 50 people, regardless of a facility's size.

The state has since imposed a 25 percent capacity limit on most public gathering places, including movie theaters, casinos, restaurants, bars and religious constitutions. It therefore is not engaged in religious discrimination, lawyers for the state told the Supreme Court.

But the church said the state still treats some places more favorably, such as retail businesses, professional offices and manufacturing plants, which are either allowed a higher capacity or face no limit other than a requirement for social distancing.

Since the pandemic began, the Supreme Court has shifted ground on deferring to state restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus. During the spring and summer, the court rejected efforts to lift limits on church attendance in California, Nevada and Illinois.

But the arrival of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative who succeeded liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, led to a change in direction. In October the court blocked an order from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo limiting attendance to 10 people in areas where the disease was rapidly spreading. Those regulations "single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment," the decision said.

The court then ordered lower courts to reconsider their rulings upholding capacity limits in California, Colorado and New Jersey.

And in early January, the court allowed the Trump administration to enforce a rule requiring women to appear in person at clinics to receive two pills for a medication abortion. A lower court had put the rule on hold citing health risks caused by the pandemic.