Dayton church renews challenge of virus attendance cap
RENO — A Dayton church is trying to renew its unsuccessful bid to strike down the state’s cap on the size of religious gatherings, arguing failure to enforce social-distancing guidelines in voter lines during Tuesday’s primary election was further proof churches are being singled out in violation of the constitution.
A U.S. district judge ruled earlier this week against churches in Las Vegas and rural Lyon County seeking court orders lifting the 50-person cap Gov. Steve Sisolak has placed on worship services to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Judge Richard Bouleware II rejected arguments they should instead be held to the same rules as casinos and others subjected to limits set at 50% of building capacity.
On Friday, Bouleware also denied a request by Cavalry Chapel Dayton Valley to file a supplemental brief adding arguments about voting to its original complaint citing lack of enforcement at crowded casinos and recent protests over racism and policing.
He did grant the church permission to file a new motion for injunctive relief if it has new evidence of a pattern of discriminatory enforcement targeting places of worship in violation of their constitutionally protected freedom to express and exercise their beliefs.
After Bouleware told the churches’ lawyers Tuesday he was denying the injunctions, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley filed new documents Wednesday citing the large groups of voters who waited “in long lines close together” during this week’s primary.
“The state enforced no safety measures, let alone precautions as stringent as those churches have voluntarily enacted,” lawyers for the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom wrote on behalf of the church east of Reno. “Under the Constitution, free exercise of religion is no less precious than the right to vote.”
State lawyers insist photos of voting lines don’t demonstrate a pattern of differential enforcement.
“Pictures form the primary election ignore Nevada’s significant efforts to reduce in-person voting in light of COVID-19, including the cooperative effort by the secretary of state and each county clerk to mail ballots to each active registered voter,” they said.
Both churches argued the state is holding them to a double standard.
The state has “demonstrated that groups engaging in either protest by the thousands, or debauchery and unhealthy smoking in casinos by the hundreds in close quarters does not spread COVID-19, but the limitation of 50 parishioners in a church practicing social distancing does,” said lawyers for Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain in Las Vegas.
Bouleware said in his earlier refusal to grant injunctions he wasn’t swayed by photos of hundreds of people flooding casino floors in Las Vegas shortly after they were allowed to reopen at 50% of capacity on June 4.
He noted Lyon County’s sheriff has indicated “he has no intention of using limited law enforcement resources to enforce the directive against Calvary or other places of worship.”
To prove selective enforcement, Bouleware said Calvary must demonstrate the state is only enforcing the directive against places of worship.
He also rejected arguments that churches are analogous to casinos because people gather at both for extended periods. He said casinos also are subject to substantial restrictions by state gambling regulators.
In addition to social distancing and spacing between table games or slots, they have requirements regarding financial operations, employee training and are subject to “regular and explicit inspection of all aspects of the respective casino’s reopening plan,” he said.