Nevada church presses its fight over coronavirus crowd limit

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Leaders of a rural Nevada church are asking a federal appeals court to overturn the state’s COVID-19 cap on the size of religious gatherings that they say treat them more severely than casinos and other secular activities in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in Lyon County wants the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to temporarily invalidate Nevada’s 50-person limit on church services while the court considers whether to strike it down altogether.

A federal judge in Las Vegas refused for the third time last week to grant the church a temporary injunction suspending the cap and subjecting religious gatherings to the same rules limiting crowds to 50% of capacity at casinos, restaurants, bars, gyms and theme parks.

Calvary Chapel wants to allow 90 people in the 200-capacity sanctuary east of Reno.

“The church asks for no special favors,” its lawyers wrote in Monday’s appeal. “It just desires to hold gatherings at 50% capacity with social distancing and safety precautions the same as many businesses where large groups gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”

“Unless this court intervenes, Nevada will continue putting a thumb on the scales against the free exercise of religion,” they said.

Nevada reported its biggest one-day increase of new coronavirus cases Tuesday, the fourth time in eight days the state hit a new daily high. The 462 new cases are part of an uptick in the virus since casinos in Las Vegas reopened at 50% capacity about two weeks ago.

But the appeal notes Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s statewide directives ignore local conditions.

“The directives are the same whether residents live in Las Vegas (population 662,000) or Puckerbrush (population 28). But the risk of contracting COVID-19 is significantly reduced in rural locations,” it said.

About 96% of Nevada’s nearly 14,000 cases occur in the two counties where population and tourism are greatest in Las Vegas and Reno. Lyon County has only 24 active cases.

Judge Richard Boulware II said the church hasn’t proven it’s being discriminated against, partly because Nevada hasn’t been enforcing the cap. He noted Lyon County’s sheriff has said repeatedly he doesn’t have enough deputies to police church services and doesn’t consider it a priority.

In Friday’s latest ruling siding with the state, Boulware said the church’s arguments were undercut further when gambling regulators mandated last week that most casino patrons wear masks at table games.

“It is difficult to establish a pattern of selective enforcement directed towards places of worship when new, more restrictive measures have been imposed against secular activities and no similar restrictions were imposed on religious activities,” he said. He also emphasized that only extraordinary circumstances warrant his interfering with the state’s regulatory authority.

“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,” he said.

The church acknowledged different activities require different safety regulations.

“But high risks associated with hundreds of people passing cards, chips, or drinks or touching handles, chairs, or slots are nothing like the low risks associated with sitting, praying, briefly singing, and listening to a sermon at church,” Calvary Chapel’s lawyers wrote.

They also point to failure to enforce social distancing in lines of voters during the June 9 primary election and at mass demonstrations that have drawn thousands protesting racism and policing.

“The governor may think protest is more important than worship, but the Free Exercise Clause bars him from officially disfavoring those who believe in a divine creator and that nothing dwarfs their efforts to follow `divine law,’” the church said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.