Nev. church fighting state limits on worship gatherings not imposed on casinos, gyms

An employee works on slot machine seats along an empty casino floor at Caesars in Atlantic City, New Jersey July 5, 2006.
An employee works on slot machine seats along an empty casino floor at Caesars in Atlantic City, New Jersey July 5, 2006. | REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

A congregation in Nevada has filed a request for relief from state-imposed restrictions on in-person gatherings that only apply to faith communities and not secular entities. 

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a church based in Lyon County, filed an injunction request with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Monday.

At issue are restrictions imposed by Gov. Steve Sisolak that limit gatherings at houses of worship to 50 people while allowing secular entities like casinos and gyms to operate at 50% capacity.

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The church hopes to also be allowed to hold worship services at 50% capacity, which would be around 90 people per in-person indoor gathering.

“The risk of COVID-19 exposure is greater at a restaurant than it is at a house of worship like Calvary Chapel that practices social distancing, eliminates coffee and snacks, and passes nothing person-to-person,” the lawsuit states.

“Courts agree that assemblies at restaurants and houses of worship are comparable. Yet the governor’s directive limits all religious gatherings to 50 people regardless of seating capacity, social distancing, or any other pertinent factor.”

The appeal also argues that Sisolak has been inconsistent in his enforcement of the restrictions, noting that the governor openly supported recent large-scale protests.

“When hundreds of protestors gathered in packed throngs in blatant violation of the directive’s ban on gatherings over 50 (§ 10), the Governor and Attorney General tweeted their support,” the suit adds.

“They took no action to impose the directive or enforce social-distancing rules. Calvary Chapel supports protestors’ right to free speech; it just wants to live by the same rules.”

Calvary Chapel is being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative law firm that frequently handles religious liberty litigation.

ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker said in a statement released Monday that he believed the Nevada government should not show favoritism to secular entities over churches.

“The government can certainly prioritize public health and safety, but it shouldn’t be able to play favorites by moving businesses and non-religious activities to the front of the line for reopening and push churches to the back,” Tucker said.

Earlier this month, District Court Judge Richard Boulware II ruled against the church, arguing, in part, that the church failed to prove that it was being discriminated against.

Boulware noted that the 50-person cap has not been strictly enforced by Lyon County officials and entities like casinos have put in new restrictive measures of their own to curb the spread of the virus.

“It is difficult to establish a pattern of selective enforcement directed toward places of worship when new, more restrictive measures have been imposed against secular activities and no similar restrictions were imposed on religious activities,” he wrote.

“Plaintiff’s requested relief would require the court to engage in potentially daily or weekly decisions about public health measures that have traditionally been left to state officials and state agencies with expertise in this area.”

According to The Associated Press, 96% of the approximately 14,000 cases in Nevada are concentrated around Las Vegas and Reno, with Lyon County having only 24 active cases.

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