Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Steve Sisolak
When I wrote an article about a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision a few weeks ago, I didn’t expect to be writing about another one so soon. But the outcome of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Steve Sisolak touches a nerve, I suppose, for many of us. For those who are not aware of the decision, the essence of the case is this. The Governor of Nevada, Steve Sisolak, issued an order that prohibits church gatherings of more than fifty persons at a time, regardless of the size of the church facility or the precautions taken, while at the same time permitting, for example, up to five hundred people at a time to attend a multiplex theater and hundreds to participate simultaneously in gaming at a casino. Calvary Chapel sought injunctive relief which, in a five to four decision, the U.S. Supreme Court denied. Chief Justice Roberts’ most salient point, writing for the majority, was that state officials “should not be subject to second-guessing by an ‘unelected federal judiciary,’ which lacks the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health and is not accountable to the people.” Justice Neil Gorsuch, in his sharp dissent, wrote: “…the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.” Justice Samuel Alito wrote his own dissent noting that while the “Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion,” it “says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack.”
The Court’s decision does indeed touch a nerve for me because I – along with many other Christians and church leaders – have been wrestling with the question of where churches should draw the line on acquiescing to government edicts on the reopening of our churches. Where I have come down on this question to this point is essentially as follows. Tell me that there is a pandemic and apply restrictions with equanimity, and I can readily be on board. Make obviously reasonable exceptions for “essential services” like hospitals and grocery stores while keeping churches shut down, and I can see the logic. Include some questionable enterprises in the list of “essential businesses,” and I may feel like rolling my eyes but will exercise patience. Let some lesser officials overstep their rightful authority, and I will take note, but will also hold my tongue – at least up to a point. But when the highest court in the land so obviously permits discrimination against churches, the debate over how Christians should think about it all enters a new phase. Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:14). But this seems awfully like Caesar demanding what belongs to God. So long as there was at least some semblance of equal treatment, the path of accepting restrictions seemed like the best course. Now that such semblance appears to be pretense, at least in significant part, the question, “Do we obey Caesar or God?” begins to press itself more firmly on Christian consciences, including mine.
Please understand that I have no interest in arguing that all Christians should now rush back to in-person attendance at their churches. A Supreme Court decision does not change anyone’s degree of vulnerability, and reasonable precautions are still in order. For some it will still be best to stay at home. Neither does the decision alter in the slightest our desire to show care for our communities by taking appropriate safety measures. Nor am I saying that “virtual” meetings are not a true “assembling” of our churches. Of course they are – or at least can be. It is true that they lack some of the goodness of in-person gathering, and in any case they should only be regarded as a temporary solution, but it’s hard for me to give credence to the view that meeting virtually under circumstances like these is tantamount to disobeying the command not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25). Rather, my point is simply that our government at the highest level has now overstepped its bounds by treating the Church unequally and with disfavor in a matter that is ultimately crucial to the life of the Church.
This is not a fight that the Court’s majority should have picked by refusing to defend religious liberty – let me hasten to add, not because the Church is so strong or will push back so hard. In fact, I am not writing to encourage “pushback,” which is a term of aggression – although it is true that the Court has, ironically, just made it harder for churches to abide by government attendance restrictions than they did before. Rather, I call it an unwise fight just because the true Church is Christ’s Church, not the government’s church. Human governments exist at His pleasure. And when they treat His Church with disfavor, they will find in the end that He is also her Protector. But that still leaves this question: What, if anything, should churches now do differently? I would humbly suggest just this. In places where unequal treatment is imposed, churches should regard it as permissible under their higher loyalty to Christ to meet in numbers as great as those permitted to other entities (such as movie theaters and casinos). They should continue, of course, to take all reasonable safety precautions. And they should be ready to suffer the consequences of their civil disobedience, if necessary, and do it with humility, grace, and all due respect, giving no legitimate grounds for accusation. Perhaps the authorities will relent. If not, the Church must be willing to stand, having counted the cost.