The United States Supreme Court has ordered the governor of Nevada to respond to a lawsuit from a church alleging that the state’s restrictions on in-person worship services violate their constitutional rights.
According to the court’s order, one of many handed down on Monday, “The respondents are directed to file a response to the petition on or before noon, Tuesday, January 19, 2021. Petitioner may file a reply brief on or before noon, Thursday January 21, 2021.”
The Lyon County-based Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley has been engaged in a lengthy legal battle with Gov. Steve Sisolak, D-Nev., Attorney General Aaron Ford, and Lyon County Sheriff Frank Hunewill over worship restrictions imposed in the state as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The most recent development in the case came in December, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down restrictions that prevented the church from holding in-person worship services with more than 50 people in attendance.
The appellate court cited the Supreme Court decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, which struck down worship restrictions in New York state, in its reasoning. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling reversed a lower court decision upholding the restrictions. As a result of the ruling, the church could hold in-person worship at 25% capacity.
Following the Ninth Circuit’s decision, attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has represented the church throughout its legal battles, filed a brief with the Supreme Court, which Sisolak and the other respondents have been asked to respond to. The attorneys praised the appellate court for doing “a commendable job applying Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo” but argued that “this Court’s review is still needed.”
“After concluding that the Nevada governor treats places of worship less favorably than many secular entities, the court of appeals granted a preliminary injunction allowing Calvary Chapel to meet at a 25% capacity limit, the same as casinos, museums, and some others in the governor’s most recent order … That was error,” the attorneys said.
The brief argued that instead, the Ninth Circuit should have required that Calvary Chapel be treated “no less well than businesses Nevada considers ‘essential,’ which do not have capacity limits other than “the effective limit caused by adhering to social distancing guidelines.”
“With no record evidence that places of worship are greater sources of COVID-19 spread than are manufacturing facilities and professional offices, the governor treated places of worship less favorably and without trying less restrictive rules. That violates the Constitution.”
Over the summer, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley unsuccessfully petitioned the Supreme Court to invalidate the worship restrictions. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the church. The makeup of the court has changed in that time, with Amy Coney Barrett replacing the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the five justices who voted to deny Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley’s request to lift Nevada’s worship restrictions.
Barrett was part of the majority in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, which was handed down in November. Since the four remaining justices who voted to uphold the state’s worship restrictions also sided with the state of Nevada against Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley along with Ginsburg, Barrett’s appointment made all the difference in the outcome of the case.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo is one of several occasions in recent months where the Supreme Court has sided with churches as they seek to challenge worship restrictions in their respective states. Last month, the court ordered a lower court to rehear a lawsuit brought by Harvest Rock Church and others against California’s worship restrictions in light of its decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo.
Later in December, the Supreme Court sided with churches in Colorado and New Jersey as they sought relief from their respective states’ worship restrictions. In addition to spurring a multitude of lawsuits, worship restrictions on indoor church services imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have led to a new outdoor church movement called “Let Us Worship,” spearheaded by worship artist Sean Feucht.