Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Back to church in Nevada

Religious Liberty | Pandemic-spawned restrictions on places of worship continue to fall
by Steve West
Posted 12/21/20, 02:00 pm

The website of the Las Vegas–area church Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley features a new banner: “Church services have resumed.”

A federal appeals court panel last week ruled Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s 50-person cap on in-person worship services was unconstitutional, overturning a lower court decision. It’s the latest court ruling to reel in governors’ pandemic restrictions on churches.

The unanimous ruling by three judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found Sisolak’s directive unfairly put looser restrictions on casinos, restaurants, arcades, and other businesses, which had to operate at 50 percent capacity but faced no numerical ceiling. Sisolak lowered that cap to 25 percent of capacity for businesses but maintained the 50-person limit for worship only. The appeals court barred the state from imposing tighter rules on houses of worship than other businesses and made clear any revisions must treat churches equally.

“There is no constitutional right to gamble, but there is one that protects attending worship services,” said Alliance Defending Freedom counsel David Cortman, who argued the appeal on behalf of the church. “The government has a duty to respect the First Amendment, so it can’t single out churches for harsher treatment than secular activities.”

Courts have reprimanded several states in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Thanksgiving eve ruling in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. The justices voted 5-4 to strike down New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s even more restrictive 10- or 25-person caps on worship services.

In June, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts provided the swing vote to uphold California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order shuttering places of worship. But in the Diocese case, Roberts was in the minority, with the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, casting a critical fifth vote in favor of Brooklyn’s Catholics and Orthodox Jews.

Since then, restrictions in California, Colorado, and the District of Columbia have also fallen. On Friday, the Oregon Health Authority modified its limitations on the size of worship services, saying they were merely recommendations.

On Dec. 15, the Supreme Court further emphasized the shift in favor of churches. It tossed out lower court rulings upholding COVID-19 restrictions in Colorado and New Jersey and sent them back for reconsideration in light of its New York ruling. It previously did the same with a challenge to California restrictions from Los Angeles–area Harvest Rock Church.

ADF’s Ryan Tucker cites the prolonged nature of worship restrictions and a growing awareness of what is at stake to explain the change. “The Supreme Court has made clear that you apply the First Amendment and not some lesser standard,” he said. “We have seen the tide turn in the last few weeks since the Diocese decision, and this is just more evidence of that.”


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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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