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US judge upholds Nevada’s cap on size of church gatherings

June 9, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this April 12, 2020, file photo, Norma Urrabazo prays while wearing a face mask before speaking at an Easter drive-in service at the International Church of Las Vegas, in Las Vegas. Nevada's lawyers are stepping up their defense of Gov. Steve Sisolak's 50-person cap on religious gatherings in a legal battle with leaders of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a rural church who say it violates their constitutional right to exercise their beliefs. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
FILE - In this April 12, 2020, file photo, Norma Urrabazo prays while wearing a face mask before speaking at an Easter drive-in service at the International Church of Las Vegas, in Las Vegas. Nevada's lawyers are stepping up their defense of Gov. Steve Sisolak's 50-person cap on religious gatherings in a legal battle with leaders of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a rural church who say it violates their constitutional right to exercise their beliefs. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday against the leaders of two Nevada churches who argued that the state’s coronavirus-related restrictions on religious gatherings are an unconstitutional violation of their First Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge Richard Boulware II denied requests from a church in rural Lyon County and another in Las Vegas that sought temporary injunctions to void the state’s 50-person cap on attendance at church services.

Lawyers for Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in Dayton, near Reno, and Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain in Las Vegas argued that they are being treated unfairly compared to casinos and other businesses.

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They wanted the judge to lift the 50-person cap and instead subject the churches to the less-stringent limits placed on casinos and other businesses that are allowed to reopen at 50% of building capacity under social distancing protocols.

Boulware said the churches could perhaps in the future prove there’s been a pattern of intentionally enforcing COVID-19 restrictions in a way that singles out religious gatherings.

But he says there’s not enough evidence yet to warrant the court’s involvement.

Both churches claimed they’re being treated unfairly, partly because they said the state is failing to enforce social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at casinos and during recent protests over policing and race.

“Calvary Chapel simply asks for the bare minimum required under the First Amendment: that its worship services be treated no worse than comparable secular activities,” lawyers for the church in Lyon County wrote in their latest request for injunctive relief.

“Placing a flat ban on churches that are adhering to the same social distancing protocols as these venues serves no legitimate government interests,” they said.

Their latest plea for a temporary injunction — filed last week after a judge rejected their bid May 29 for an emergency order — included a dozen photographs and video clips of scores of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder as they entered reopened Las Vegas casinos June 4.

It also took issue with the state’s “selective enforcement” of a ban on public gatherings of more than 50, noting hundreds of Nevada residents who demonstrated in Las Vegas and Reno in response to the killing of George Floyd, the black man who died after a white officer pressed a knee into his neck in Minneapolis.

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Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley’s lawyers said Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, retweeted a video supporting the protesters gathered closely. Attorney General Aaron Ford offered a similarly supportive tweet that “only tepidly reminds” protesters to “do your best to comply with #COVID19 guidelines with social distancing and wearing a mask.”

“The First Amendment also protects the right to worship,” the church said. “Whether in the governor or attorney general’s eyes one person’s cause for gathering is noble while another person’s cause is not, makes no difference under the Constitution.”

The state’s latest filing Monday said it was “ridiculous” to suggest the “inability to prevent spontaneous protests or to force local law enforcement to arrest all those who violate” the public-gathering ban favors “protests over church services.”

“Without dispute, these events have raised serious discussions pertaining to policing and race,” Deputy Solicitor Craig Newby wrote Monday. He noted that “others have attempted to co-opt these peaceful protests with acts of violence,” a Las Vegas police officer was seriously injured and Reno police were forced to use tear gas to disperse looters.

“Making efforts to maintain a safe community is not a restriction on the contest of anyone’s expression,” Newby said. “Nevada has rational reasons for reopening its most highly-regulated industry and for how to address public unrest.”

At 50% capacity, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley said it could accommodate 90 people spaced 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart per 45-minute service at the 200-capacity church east of Reno. It emphasized there’s no limitation on casino hours “or how long patrons may sit at a gaming table or slot machine.”

“The governor supposedly believes that those who gather in houses of worship pose a unique threat of transmitting COVID-19,” it said. “Churches do not deserve to be singled out.”

The state countered that the 50-person cap is less stringent than the outright ban on sporting events, concerts, musical performances and live entertainment.

“It is not the place of Calvary, its counsel, or this court to second guess the emergency decisions empowered to the state’s elected leaders during this crisis,” Newby said.