Feds warn Sisolak about in-person worship limits

The Trump administration is warning Nevada's Democratic governor that his plan for reopening the state during recovery from the coronavirus fails to treat religious and secular gatherings equally.

In a letter sent Monday to Gov. Steve Sisolak, the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division took issue with the first phase of Sisolak's guidelines for restarting economic and social activity in the state.

That phased-in reopening restricts the size of in-person worship services, while allowing restaurants and other secular establishments to reopen with less stringent occupancy restrictions, the federal official said.

"We understand these directives were issued in the midst of an uncertain situation, which may have required quick decisions based on changing information," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband wrote to Sisolak. "We are concerned, however, that the flat prohibition against ten or more persons gathering for in-person worship services — regardless of whether they maintain social distancing guidelines — impermissibly treats religious and nonreligious organizations unequally."

The governor plans a news conference later Tuesday to update his plans for reopening.

Dreiband last week sent a similar warning letter alleging discriminatory treatment in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom later released guidelines for resuming in-person religious services in his state.

The letter to Sisolak came three days after President Donald Trump declared houses of worship essential during the pandemic and vowed to try to override governors who don't abide by his call to permit religious organizations to resume in-person services.

Holding faith-based gatherings to a different standard runs the risk of infringing upon constitutional rights if the state fails to meet certain legal prerequisites, Dreiband warned Sisolak in his letter. He urged the governor to amend his treatment of religious organizations in his order.

A spokeswoman for Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the Justice Department letter.

Sisolak is due to speak Tuesday evening about plans for reopening casinos following his mid-March closure order to prevent crowds from gathering and spreading the coronavirus.

Associated Press writer Ken Ritter contributed to this report from Las Vegas.


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