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Appeals court strikes down Nevada's coronavirus rules for houses of worship

Church pews Credit Goran Bogicevic Shutterstock CNA 1 Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock.

A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday ruled preliminarily that Nevada may not limit attendance at indoor religious services differently than it limits businesses or other gatherings.

“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Dec. 15 in Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak.

This limits “numerous secular activities and entities significantly better than religious worship services,” the court added.

Under current Nevada restrictions, casinos, restaurants, and bars are limited to 25% of their capacity. However, houses of worship may admit no more than 50 persons, even if this is less than 25% of its capacity.

“This is a significant win. There is no constitutional right to gamble, but there is one that protects attending worship services. The government has a duty to respect the First Amendment, so it can’t single out churches for harsher treatment than secular activities,” David Cortman, a counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, commented.

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“Today, the Ninth Circuit made clear that, at a minimum, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley can’t be treated more harshly than Nevada’s casinos, bowling alleys, retail businesses, restaurants, and arcades. Such disparate treatment is both illogical and unconstitutional.”

According to the AP, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak said the state will comply with the ruling, but expressed disappointment with the court’s decision. He encouraged religious leaders to maintain safety measures.

Monica Moazes, a spokeswoman for Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, said Ford has not yet decided whether to challenge the decision.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the Brooklyn diocese and Orthodox Jewish synagogues in their case against the state’s COVID restrictions.

That decision was cited in the Ninth Circuit’s Dec. 15 ruling as having “arguably represented a seismic shift in Free Exercise law, and compels the result in this case.”
Churches in New York, California, Colorado, and now Nevada, have won their appeals for relief against state COVID restrictions in light of this decision.

The Supreme court had earlier, in July, upheld Nevada’s coronavirus regulations by a 5-4 vote. The Ninth Circuit had also denied Calvary Chapel’s application for relief from the governor’s regulation.

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