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One Nevada church settles, other pressing COVID-19 lawsuit

June 23, 2021 GMT

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The state has agreed to pay $175,000 in legal fees to settle a lawsuit with a rural Nevada church over COVID-19 capacity caps on religious gatherings that a U.S. appeals court found illegal in December.

But while no COVID-19 restrictions have been in place since June 1, a second church in Las Vegas is continuing to press for a federal court order declaring Gov. Steve Sisolak’s earlier limits unconstitutional.

Lawyers for Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain in Las Vegas filed a motion in U.S. District Court on June 11 seeking permission to amend its complaint against Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Justin Luna, chief of the Nevada Division of Emergency Management.

They said a formal ruling is necessary to prevent the state from enacting similar illegal orders in the future and to force compensation for the harm suffered by the church’s parishioners and other businesses deemed non-essential under the governor’s emergency directives.

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“Unless and until injunctive relief is granted, plaintiffs will continue to suffer irreparable harm for which they are left without an adequate remedy at law” and “be fearful of exercising their right to peacefully pray, assemble, engage in business and to be treated for COVID-19,” the motion states.

Sisolak lifted all state COVID-19 restrictions on churches, casinos and all other businesses on June 1 and gave the authority to local counties to enforce any limits they saw fit. None currently place any restrictions on religious gatherings.

Last year, indoor religious gatherings in Nevada were subject to a hard cap of 50 churchgoers while attendance limits at many businesses including casinos were based on a percentage of the buildings’ fire-code capacities.

The different treatment of secular and religious entities drew a sharp rebuke from the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2020 when the high court was sharply divided in a 5-4 ruling that refused the Nevada churches’ request for an emergency injunction blocking enforcement of the attendance limit.

“There is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote then in one of three strongly worded dissents.

The other church that sued the state, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley east of Reno, entered into settlement talks soon after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Nevada’s church attendance cap in December.

The San Francisco-based court directed the judge in Nevada to reconsider the case. In the meantime, the state said it would not enforce any limits on churches more stringent than those on private businesses.

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In April, the state and lawyers for Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley filed a joint motion to stay the proceedings until July 8 so the state could obtain necessary approvals to make the payment for legal fees. Two weeks ago, the Nevada Board of Examiners approved a payment of $175,000 to the Georgia-based Alliance Defending Freedom.

The payment was negotiated down from $235,000, Sisloak’s budget officer Jennifer Hamilton wrote in a memo.

Sisolak and Ford, both Democrats, declined comment on the Las Vegas’ church’s latest motion to amend its complaint, their spokespersons said in emails to The Associated Press. The state has until Friday to respond in court.

The motion was filed by attorneys Sigal Chattah of Las Vegas, who argued on Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain’s behalf before the 9th Circuit, and Joey Gilbert of Reno, who has announced his intention to seek the GOP’s 2022 gubernatorial nomination.

It seeks a declaratory judgment nullifying Sisolak’s earlier emergency regulations and awarding unspecified damages “in the interest of fair play and substantial justice.”

“As well intentioned as these orders are with respect to the general public’s health, safety and welfare, they have come at a steep price with respect to the complete and utter restraint on Nevadans’ civil rights and liberties,” the motion says.