The leadership of a church in rural Nevada has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in a bid to hold religious gatherings to the 50% capacity limit enjoyed by casinos, restaurants, and other businesses as pandemic restrictions relax in the state.
According to the Associated Press, lawyers for Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley wrote in an emergency injunction request that Governor Steve Sisolak’s directive to allow casinos, restaurants, bowling alleys, and amusement parks to reopen at 50% of capacity while maintaining a 50-person limit on churches “simply turns the First Amendment on its head.”
“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 request, filed late last Wednesday, declared.
The Reno-area church appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month after a federal judge in Nevada upheld the governor’s order.
In the request, Calvary Chapel’s lawyers noted that it will take several months to obtain a ruling from the 9th Circuit, “by which time the legal landscape may have changed but the irreparable harm to the church’s First Amendment rights will be irreversible.”
“Only this court can halt Nevada from treating nearly every activity imaginable better than the exercise of religion,” they said.
AP notes that the state has until July 15 to respond at the Supreme Court.
“Temporarily narrowing restrictions on the size of mass gatherings, including for religious services, does not outbalance the health and well-being of Nevada citizens,” the state said in their most recent filings in the 9th Circuit.
The church, however, said in its injunction request that it simply wants to follow the same 50% capacity limit as businesses in the state with their modest, 200-person sanctuary.
“Calvary Chapel only seeks to host about 90 people at a socially-distanced church service, while the governor allows hundreds to thousands of people to gamble and enjoy entertainment at casinos,” the 59-page filing declares. “The governor allows this mix of shared handles, cards, tokens, tables, servers, drinks, restrooms, and seats by hundreds to thousands in casinos at 50% capacity, while forbidding more than 50 people to sit — masked, and socially distanced — in places of worship.”
AP notes that other businesses allowed to operate at 50% of capacity include bars, gyms, arcades, water parks, and swimming pools. Movie theaters are also subject to the 50-person cap, but it applies to individual theater rooms within a multiplex, which means as many 900 people could be present inside a building with 18 screens.
The church also explained the state clearly favors “speaking a commercial message to live audiences over communicating religious expression,” despite the fact that the Supreme Court has long held that commercial speech occupies a “subordinate position in the scale of First Amendment values.”
“The Constitution forbids the governor from privileging commercial messages about gambling, fitness, entertainment, and liquor over Calvary Chapel’s fully-protected religious speech,” the church went on.
Though the church acknowledges the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic, it clarifies, “what the governor may not do is favor secular assemblies in COVID-19-ridden, urban areas by allowing many — if not most — of them to occur at 50% of building capacity, while sharply limiting gatherings at places of worship in rural counties with a small number of COVID-19 infections to 50 people max.”
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