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 a rural church who say it violates their constitutional right to exercise their beliefs.
Attorney General Aaron Ford is urging a federal judge in Reno to deny an order sought by Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley to invalidate COVID-19 restrictions so up to 90 people can attend services at a time at the 200-capacity church southeast of Reno.
A telephonic hearing is scheduled Tuesday on its new request for a temporary injunction suspending the cap after the U.S. court denied its bid last week for an emergency order striking it down as unconstitutional.
Church leaders say the hard cap violates their religious freedom, treating them differently than many Nevada businesses allowed to reopen at 50% of capacity if they practice strict social distancing.
Meanwhile, the local sheriff said in a court motion this week he won’t use his deputies to actively enforce social distancing at churches in his county east of Reno.
The filings came as Nevada casinos reopened their doors Thursday for the first time since mid-March. Capacity is limited to 50% of maximums set by fire codes and patrons must be 6 feet apart.
U.S. Judge Miranda Du denied the emergency order last Friday, the same day the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an emergency appeal by a California church that challenged that state’s attendance limits at worship services. California allowed churches to reopen at 25% of capacity or up to 100 attendees, whichever’s less.
Ford says the high court’s ruling reinforces Nevada’s position.
“To be sure, the free exercise of religion is constitutionally protected,” Deputy Solicitor General Craig Newby wrote on Ford’s behalf Tuesday.
But “temporary, narrowing restrictions on the size of mass gatherings, including for religious services, do not outbalance the health and well-being of all Nevada citizens,” Newby said. He said the state directives “do not regulate the content of any expression.”
Calvary Chapel’s lawsuit argues it should be subject to the same 50% cap mandated for businesses including casinos, restaurants, gyms, pawn shops and tattoo parlors. Church leaders want to allow about 90 parishioners at each of two services.
“Remarkably, the state trusts its residents to socially distance and follow general health and safety guidelines while gathering on a daily basis for similar secular activities, but it does not trust them to once or twice a week if they are assembling for religious purposes,” the motion said.
The state argues the threat of the spread of the coronavirus is based in part on exposure time, not just distances between people.
“Box stores, grocery stores, and construction sites … simply do not pose the same amount of threat of exposure to and spread of COVID-19 as do religious institutions that hold hours-long services with its congregants sitting in close proximity,” the state said.
Lyon County Sheriff Frank Hunewill, who is named in the lawsuit as a defendant with Sisolak and Ford, said his office will investigate any complaints about the church, but noted his county is “not a hotspot” for COVID-19, with no related deaths so far.
“Lyon County law enforcement officers have not and will not be using their limited resources monitoring church attendance and/or parishioner’s adherence to social distancing recommendations,” Hunewill stated in a court filing Tuesday. “Whether the plaintiff’s services included more than the governor’s recommended number of parishioners or … adhere to the recommended social distancing during the worship services is not a priority of Lyon County law enforcement.”
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