News Articles

Church renewing challenge to Nevada’s COVID-19 attendance cap

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A rural Nevada Baptist church is trying to renew its unsuccessful bid to strike down the state’s 50-person cap on religious gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state’s failure to enforce social-distancing guidelines in voter lines during the June 9 primary election was further proof churches are being singled out in violation of the U.S. Constitution, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley contends.

The non-Southern Baptist congregation, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), filed documents June 10 citing the large groups of voters who waited “in long lines close together” during the primary.

“The state enforced no safety measures, let alone precautions as stringent as those churches have voluntarily enacted,” ADF lawyers wrote on behalf of the church east of Reno. “Under the Constitution, free exercise of religion is no less precious than the right to vote.”

U.S. District Judge Richard Bouleware II ruled June 9 against Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley and another congregation, Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain in Las Vegas, which sought court orders lifting the cap placed by Gov. Steve Sisolak. Bouleware rejected arguments that churches should instead be held to the same limits imposed on casinos and others, set at 50 percent of building capacity. Bouleware also denied the Dayton Valley church’s request to add to its original complaint a supplemental brief citing the voting lines.

But Bouleware did grant Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley permission to file a new motion for injunctive relief if it has new evidence of a pattern of discriminatory enforcement targeting places of worship in violation of their constitutionally protected freedom to express and exercise their beliefs.

State lawyers insist photos of voting lines don’t demonstrate a pattern of differential enforcement.

“Pictures from the primary election ignore Nevada’s significant efforts to reduce in-person voting in light of COVID-19, including the cooperative effort by the secretary of state and each county clerk to mail ballots to each active registered voter,” state lawyers said.

Both churches argued the state is holding them to a double standard.

The state has “demonstrated that groups engaging in either protest by the thousands, or debauchery and unhealthy smoking in casinos by the hundreds in close quarters does not spread COVID-19, but the limitation of 50 parishioners in a church practicing social distancing does,” said lawyers for Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain.

Bouleware said in his June 9 refusal to grant injunctions he wasn’t swayed by photos of hundreds of people flooding casino floors in Las Vegas shortly after they were allowed to reopen at 50 percent of capacity on June 4.

He noted Lyon County’s sheriff has indicated “he has no intention of using limited law enforcement resources to enforce the directive against Calvary or other places of worship.”

To prove selective enforcement, Bouleware said Calvary must demonstrate the state is only enforcing the directive against places of worship.

He also rejected arguments that churches are analogous to casinos because people gather at both for extended periods. He said casinos also are subject to substantial restrictions by state gambling regulators.

In addition to social distancing and spacing between table games or slots, Bouleware said casinos have requirements regarding financial operations and employee training, and are subject to “regular and explicit inspection of all aspects of the respective casino’s reopening plan.”