It’s clear that Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak is playing favorites. And while slot machines and black jack tables make the cut, churches do not.
Unfortunately, on Friday, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court declined to halt—at an early stage of a lawsuit—the unfair treatment of churches in Nevada, where they face much tighter COVID-19 restrictions than secular businesses such as casinos, gyms, and theme parks. Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh vigorously dissented from the order denying an emergency injunction pending appeal. They would have immediately prevented Nevada from violating churches’ rights.
As part of the state’s reopening plans during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Sisolak issued a rule allowing casinos, restaurants, bars, theme parks, and gyms to operate at 50 percent capacity. Thousands of people rushed back into casinos. Unsurprisingly, video footage shows that many of them failed to wear masks or practice social distancing.
In the meantime, churches such as Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley made plans to return to in-person church services with comprehensive social distancing and health and safety protocols. This included meeting at roughly 50 percent of the building’s capacity, following all general social-distancing and face-covering rules, providing hand sanitizer, and cleaning in between services, among other precautions.
But under Gov. Sisolak’s rule, churches face tighter restrictions than secular businesses. The 50-percent rule doesn’t apply to them. They are limited to 50 people or less, including ministers, sound and video technicians, and others needed to run the service.
That’s unfair. And it’s unconstitutional.
As Justice Alito explained in dissent: “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.”
And while the government has every right to prioritize public health and safety, it can’t prioritize businesses and nonreligious activities over churches. Or, as Justice Gorsuch put it in his dissenting opinion: “The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
Our constitutional rights do not disappear during a pandemic.
While Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley and other churches in Nevada will continue to be limited to less than 50 people in their services for now, this does not mean the end of the lawsuit. It will continue in a lower court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the bar will be lower than when seeking emergency relief pending an appeal.
ADF will continue to work to ensure that churches and people of faith are not treated as second-class citizens. After all, religious freedom is a preeminent right that must be protected by our government officials, not downplayed at the first opportunity.
Unfortunately, as governments have responded to the COVID-19 crisis and tried to navigate reopening, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley is not the only church that has been treated unfairly.
That’s why the ADF Church Alliance exists.
The ADF Church Alliance team has directly advised—or equipped others to advise—over 3,000 churches and ministries during the COVID-19 crisis. We are here to help guide churches as they respond to their specific state and local laws, which seem to be ever-changing.