“Las Vegas. Now Open!”
So declared an ad announcing the reopening of casinos after closures due to COVID-19.
But while hundreds of thousands of people streamed into casinos, Nevada churches were prohibited from holding worship services with more than 50 people—under threat of criminal and civil penalties.
That’s a clear (and unconstitutional) double standard. And one Nevada church took a stand to correct it.
Thankfully, on Tuesday it got some great news from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Like most churches across the country, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley shut its doors for months in compliance with the Nevada Governor’s church gathering ban, livestreaming its services online.
As Nevada started to reopen in late May, the church hoped to resume in-person worship services with certain restrictions. Calvary Chapel even developed a comprehensive health and safety plan, including meeting at less than 50 percent of its building’s capacity, practicing social distancing, using face masks, and limiting services to 45 minutes.
But Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak had other plans. Instead of prioritizing religious freedom, Gov. Sisolak continued to restrict church meetings while providing exceptions for “non-essential” businesses—such as casinos, restaurants, bars, theme parks, and gyms.
While these secular organizations could reopen at 50 percent capacity, churches faced criminal and civil penalties if they opened their doors to 50 or more attendees.
Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley knew this wasn’t right.
With people pouring into the recently reopened casinos—many failing to social distance or wear face masks—a clear double standard was exposed. Watch the video below to see for yourself.
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley. This lawsuit challenges Gov. Sisolak’s unconstitutional ban on church gatherings.
Calvary Chapel trusted that the government would eventually restore its constitutional freedoms and allow it to resume in-person worship services at the earliest opportunity.
But that is not what happened.
Instead, Gov. Sisolak played favorites.
As ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker put it: “The government can certainly prioritize public health and safety, but it can’t move businesses and non-religious activities to the front of the line for reopening and push churches to the back.”
ADF filed a lawsuit against Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak in May 2020. On June 22, 2020, ADF asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to halt Gov. Sisolak’s unconstitutional church gathering ban.
Calvary Chapel has also filed two petitions with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to declare Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s coronavirus restrictions on churches unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has not yet addressed the second petition , though it did decline to immediately halt Nevada’s restrictions when Calvary Chapel filed an emergency motion in July 2020.
In a strong dissent to that decision, Justice Samuel Alito wrote: “The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance.”
While it was disappointing that the Supreme Court denied Calvary Chapel’s request for relief, ADF has continued to fight for Calvary Chapel’s rights. On December 8, 2020, ADF attorneys represented Calvary Chapel before the 9th Circuit. And, praise God, on December 15, the 9th Circuit ruled in Calvary Chapel’s favor .
This unequal treatment of churches is happening across the state of Nevada.
At a bare minimum, the First Amendment requires religious organizations be treated no less favorably than secular organizations. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that unequal treatment of churches and religious organizations is “odious to our Constitution.”
It is unconstitutional to treat churches worse than these secular organizations, yet that is exactly what Nevada was doing before the 9th Circuit's decision.