An update on religious freedom in Nevada

October 2, 2020

On Thursday, Oct. 1, new COVID-19 guidance issued by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s went into effect raising the state’s limit on most gatherings from 50 to 250 people or 50% capacity, whichever is less. The move was reported as a “kick start to convention season” as much of the Nevada economy, in addition to casinos, is dependent on tourism sparked by conferences, concerts, and sporting events.

The new guidance would allow churches to hold gatherings of 250 people but problems remain in the state’s rule because Gov. Sisolak continues to give special treatment to casinos. Casinos are permitted to operate at 50% capacity without a cap on the number of people allowed inside at any given time. 

Russell Moore commented on the news of the updated guidance:

“If casinos can be trusted to be open while maintaining safety, then certainly churches can be. The vast majority of churches are operating not only in accordance with best-practices on COVID prevention in their areas, but exceeding all of the guidelines in the care they are taking. Churches cannot be singled out and treated differently from other gatherings simply because they are houses of worship. That is out of step with the First Amendment and our long American history of free exercise. I urge Governor Sisolak to stop singling out houses of worship, and instead to partner with churches, as is happening in communities all over the country, to combat this virus. This is a time when we need trust and cooperation from every sector of society. These arbitrary and capricious treatments of churches undermine the ability to do that. Churches are eager to serve their communities safely, and should be allowed to do so.”

In response to this unequal treatment, a church in rural Lyon County, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, sued Gov. Sisolak, arguing that the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings are unconstitutional because they treat religious gatherings worse than comparable secular activities and spaces, such as casinos.

David Cortman, ADF’s Senior Counsel and Vice President of U.S. Litigation, commented on this development:

“The First Amendment requires churches not be treated like second-class citizens. Even with the governor’s new order allowing churches to gather in greater numbers, the problem remains: There is still a hard cap on churches at 250 people. Casino patrons can still stream into Nevada’s gambling establishments at 50 percent capacity without the hard cap imposed on churches. The governor should adjust his policies to comply with the Constitution. There is no constitutional right to gamble, but there is one that protects religious Americans. 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.”

For more on where the church’s litigation stands and what is being done to resolve the situation, see this latest explainer from ERLC’s Travis Wussow and ADF’s Ryan Tucker, What’s next for religious freedom in Nevada?