By / Dec 17

On Dec. 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s pandemic restrictions that treated churches more harshly than other spaces, like casinos and restaurants. This is a significant win, as the ERLC argued for in our amicus brief in this case.

The case challenging Nevada’s non-neutral pandemic rules was brought by Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a church in rural Lyon County. Calvary Chapel is represented by the legal organization, and ERLC partner, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) that made the case that Gov. Sisolak’s rules were both unconstitutional and illogical for public health during a pandemic. 

“The 9th Circuit got this case right,” said Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, as news broke yesterday of the church’s victory for equal treatment. Moore’s comments continued:

“Government cannot single out and treat churches 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 once again urge Governor Sisolak to instead 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. Churches are eager to serve their communities safely, and should be allowed to do so.”

David Cortman, ADF’s senior counsel and vice president of U.S. Litigation, called the 9th Circuit decision “a significant win” in Calvary Chapel’s litigation with the state of Nevada. Cortman’s comments in an ADF press release continued:

“There is no constitutional right to gamble, but there is one that protects attending worship services. The government has a duty to respect the First Amendment, so it can’t single out churches for harsher treatment than secular activities. Today, the 9th Circuit made clear that, at a minimum, Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley can’t be treated more harshly than Nevada’s casinos, bowling alleys, retail businesses, restaurants, and arcades. Such disparate treatment is both illogical and unconstitutional.”

Background on the case

Nevada’s COVID-19 guidance has been of particular concern and litigation for religious liberty advocates since it was issued this summer. The timeline, unfortunately, included a Supreme Court denial for emergency injunction in late July. “I am saddened and disappointed that the Supreme Court did not take this opportunity to bring sanity into this dispute over religious exercise in Nevada,” said Russell Moore in response.

Justice Neil Gorsuch perhaps sums up the situation best in his dissent, “The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”

As litigation continued, in September, Travis Wussow, ERLC’s vice president of public policy, and Ryan Tucker, senior counsel at ADF, co-authored an explainer outlining the timeline and arguments. And they encouraged Christians to think about the fundamental freedoms and public responsibilities in tension during the pandemic.

“The First Amendment provides broad and strong protections for religious exercise, and governments should ordinarily avoid any interference with a church’s worship practices. Indeed, religious freedom is a foundational, bedrock right that must be respected by our governing officials. Public officials also have the authority to protect public health and safety. These two public responsibilities may be in tension, but one does not negate the other; the First Amendment is not suspended even during a pandemic.”

Gov. Sisolak then made a change to his pandemic restrictions in October, reported as a “kick start to convention season”. While the new guidance would allow churches to hold gatherings of 250 people, casinos were permitted to continue to operate at 50% capacity without a cap on the total number of people allowed inside.

Before the hearing at the 9th Circuit, Moore spoke to the clear logic of the resolution needed, “if casinos can be trusted to be open while maintaining safety, then certainly churches can be.” He urged Gov. 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. 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.”

The Supreme Court’s Ruling on New York’s Restrictions

Thankfully, this is what the 9th Circuit panel decision allowed–respect for the fundamental freedom of religious liberty and equal treatment of similar spaces during a pandemic.

This week’s decision in favor of Calvary Chapel comes after the religious liberty win at the Supreme Court the Wednesday before the Thanksgiving holiday in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo. Wussow wrote about the importance of the New York decision in a recent article, The Supreme Court changes course on religious liberty and the pandemic. This shift is meaningful not only so that public health policy in our nation respects the First Amendment, but also for the freedom of churches to care for their cities during this crisis.

How churches are serving Nevada

For pastors in Nevada like Vance Pitman, senior pastor Hope Church in Las Vegas, this year’s obstacles were also opportunities. “Our people saw an obstacle and began to serve in the community,” Pitman shared with the ERLC.

The congregation of Hope Church met the needs that the pandemic brought about in their city by providing meals for critical health care professionals, foster families, and others in financial need. The church also hosted drive-through COVID-19 testing sites and led over 20 supply drives for their area hospitals. Pitman recounted how the churches of Macedonia in 2 Corinthians 8 met the needs of their community, “for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity.”

“That’s exactly what we saw here in Las Vegas,” Pitman reflected, “our people served in the community and gave generously and in the midst of this incredible pandemic, we’ve experienced the greatest financial year in the history of our church. Every obstacle is an opportunity to see God’s faithfulness and join in God’s activity.”

This is a difficult time and just this week, the pandemic reached yet another grave milestone passing 300,000 Americans deaths from this virus. As the people of God, we know that in this grief-stricken season, we need our church communities. We need to pray together, provide meals for one another, support the nurses and doctors and pharmaceutical professionals providing healthcare, and yes, we need to gather together as the church as we are able. With this decision by the 9th Circuit, churches in Nevada are able to meet responsibly and serve generously in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it creates for their communities.

By / Oct 2

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?


By / Sep 4

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss religious liberty in Nevada, Caring Well Challenge, The Rock, U.S. debt, the Benadryl challenge, and Chadwick Boseman. Lindsay also gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including a piece by Ryan Tucker and Travis Wussow with “What’s next for religious freedom in Nevada,” Josh Wester with “What does cognitive dissonance have to do with abortion and social justice?,” and Faye Scott with “Protocols to help protect against sexual abuse while meeting virtually.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by DJ Jenkins for a conversation about life and ministry.

About DJ

DJ Jenkins grew up east of Los Angeles in Redlands, California. During his college years at Cal Poly Pomona, DJ met a great group of students & staff of the local Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) chapter. It was through this organization DJ placed his faith in Jesus and started following Him. After graduating with a B.S. in biology, DJ spent nine years working with Cru, including one year overseas in São Paulo, Brazil. He met his wife Alisha through Cru and, before moving to Studio City, they worked together at the University of Arizona for five years. In 2012, DJ and Alisha and their team moved to Studio City, an influential neighborhood of Los Angeles, to start Anthology Church. DJ and Alisha have two children. DJ is currently in the final semester of receiving his Masters of Divinity from Gateway Seminary. You can connect with him on Twitter: @DJJenkins

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