Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing a church filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday that asks it to declare Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s coronavirus restrictions on churches unconstitutional. For months, Sisolak allowed casinos to operate at 50% capacity while capping churches at 50 people. That meant a casino with capacity for 2,000 could host 1,000 gamblers, while a church with the same capacity could welcome only 50 worshipers. Although the governor’s newest order increased the cap, it continues the unequal treatment by allowing casinos and other secular establishments to operate at 50% capacity with no cap.
A procedural rule allows Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in rural Lyon County to ask the high court to weigh in even while its lawsuit moves forward at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit; the ordinary process could result in the church being subject to unconstitutional gathering restrictions for many additional months.
“The First Amendment requires churches not be treated as second-class,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “There is no time to waste. Casino patrons can still stream into Nevada’s gambling establishments at 50% capacity while churches have a hard cap. The governor continues to violate the Constitution, so the church has no choice but to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to restore its freedoms under the First Amendment now.”
“Time is of the essence,” the petition ADF attorneys filed with the Supreme Court in Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak explains. “If the petition is not resolved by the end of the 2020 Term, churches and worshippers will continue to endure unconstitutional orders like Governor Sisolak’s for a minimum of 15-18 months. That is why Calvary Chapel has filed this petition under Rule 11, before receiving a merits ruling from the Ninth Circuit.”
“There is no constitutional right to gamble, but there is one that protects attending worship services,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of U.S. Litigation David Cortman. “We look forward to the day when, by the governor’s order or a court order, church gatherings are, at a minimum, treated equally to other gatherings.”
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As the ADF petition states, the most recent version of Sisolak’s executive order “allows even more secular venues, such as museums, art galleries, zoos, and aquariums, to assemble at 50% fire-code capacity with no hard cap. And it allows convention centers to host four times as many attendees—up to 1,000—as churches. So the Governor’s preference for secular entities over religious entities remains. What’s more, the Governor is free to go back to the previous [even harsher] order at any time.”
On June 4, ADF filed a brief in federal district court that included video footage of a reopened, crowded casino floor where the majority of patrons pictured are not wearing masks or practicing social distancing. In contrast, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley has developed comprehensive social distancing and health and safety protocols to govern its services.
“The Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause requires equal treatment of religious organizations,” said Bursch. “All Calvary Chapel asks is that in-person worship services be treated equally with businesses and other types of gatherings.”
Jason D. Guinasso, one of more than 3,400 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel for the church.