Over the Labor Day weekend, the State of Nevada allowed streams of tourists to crowd the Las Vegas Strip. News reports observed that not everyone was practicing social distancing or wearing the state-mandated face coverings while visiting popular attractions.
Yet, the State continues to cap church services at 50 people indefinitely—regardless of the church’s building size or its rigorous health and safety protocols.
This unequal treatment of churches is why Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley. Earlier this month, ADF submitted a brief at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
As ADF’s brief points out, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak’s response to COVID-19 has revealed a clear and unconstitutional double standard. Here are three types of secular gatherings that the governor has treated more favorably than religious gatherings.
For well over three months now, casinos have been allowed to operate at half capacity. As displayed over the Labor Day weekend, this translates to thousands of people streaming through the doors of casinos, many failing to social distance or wear masks.
In stark contrast, Governor Sisolak has sharply limited gatherings at places of worship to 50 people max—even in rural counties, such as Lyon County, which has a low number of COVID-19 infections and is where Calvary Chapel is located.
Governor Sisolak himself attended a protest in direct contradiction of his own order prohibiting large gatherings. As ADF argued in its brief at the 9th Circuit in July: “Not only have the Governor and Attorney General refused to apply emergency directives to mass protests, they have also actively encouraged the protests, while threatening churches and others that violate the rules. The Governor even personally participated in an illegal protest.”
Governor Sisolak recently found himself in hot water, yet again, when he was spotted dining at a Las Vegas restaurant—which have been allowed to operate at half capacity—that featured live musicians and a singer. Yet the Governor has restricted church attendance to 50 people based on the argument that worship services are more dangerous, in part, because they involve music and singing.
Governor Sisolak responded to ADF’s 9th Circuit brief, stating: “We’ve been researching different approaches in terms of how to do that, and using best practices that have been developed in other states. Trust me, I want to get back to church. I want to go back to mass live instead of watching it on my phone every weekend.”
But as ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman explained:
There’s really nothing to research. Other states ask church goers to wear masks and to socially distance in their worship spaces, just like the Governor asks of those going to casinos and amusement parks. Given how common this accommodation is in other places — and the Governor’s confidence that it works for thousands of casino goers — it’s incredible we have to litigate this.
Perhaps U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch said it best in his dissent from the Court’s 5-4 decision declining to immediately halt Nevada’s unequal treatment of churches: “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.”
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