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Nevada urges US Supreme Court to deny church’s virus appeal

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Nevada’s lawyers urged the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to reject a rural church’s appeal to the state’s 50-person cap on attendance at worship services.

The lawyers claim the church’s assertion that the restriction infringes on the constitutional right to exercise religious beliefs is false, arguing that protecting Nevadans against the spread of the coronavirus weighs “heavily against injunctive relief.”

“Temporarily narrowing restrictions on the size of mass gatherings, including for religious services, protects the health and well-being of Nevada citizens during a global pandemic,” they wrote.

Leaders of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley are asking the high court to suspend the cap while the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals considers their claim that restrictions treating casinos and others more leniently during the pandemic is unconstitutional.

The church’s leadership said a June 4 directive issued by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak trampled First Amendment rights since it allowed casinos, restaurants, bowling alleys and amusement parks to reopen at 50 percent of capacity while maintaining a hard cap for church services.

“The Free Exercise Clause protects the exercise of religion. No constitutional provision protects the right to gamble at casinos, eat at restaurants, or frolic at indoor amusement parks,” the church leaders said.

The Lyon County church east of Reno wants to follow the 50-percent capacity limit at a sanctuary that normally holds up to 200 people. Other establishments allowed to operate that way include gyms, arcades, hair salons and water parks.

The church appealed to the 9th Circuit last month after a federal judge in Nevada upheld the state’s policy. The San Francisco-based appellate court is still considering the appeal but has denied the church’s request for an emergency injunction in the meantime. The three-sentence ruling July 2 pointed to the Supreme Court’s refusal in May to strike down California’s limit on the size of religious gatherings.

Nevada’s lawyers said in Wednesday’s filing that making efforts to maintain a safe community during what they hope is a once-in-a-century pandemic “is not a restriction on the content of anyone’s expression.”

“The record contains no evidence of selective enforcement against religious services,” Nevada’s Solicitor General Heidi Parry Stern and Deputy Solicitor General Craig Newby wrote.

In fact, there is no evidence the cap has been enforced at Calvary Chapel or any other church, they wrote, noting the Lyon County sheriff said he doesn’t have the resources or the intention to enforce it.

The lawyers wrote that Nevada has constitutional public emergency powers it can exercise to protect the public against the highly contagious virus.

“Calvary and its counsel should not be allowed to continually second-guess Nevada’s efforts,” they said.

The lawyers also noted the federal judge in Las Vegas who upheld the state’s policy found that casinos are subject to much greater restrictions than places of worship.

Casino reopening plans — including comprehensive training for employees — were subject to approval by the Nevada Gaming Control Board. The Nevada Gaming Commission maintains full authority to enforce health requirements and reopening plans, the lawyers said.

The state said Wednesday the church is free to hold services with no attendance limit outdoors or simply double the number of indoor services it holds.