‘God Is Good’: Nevada Church Claims Victory After Court Strikes Down COVID-19 Restrictions

A federal court ruled in favor of a church in Nevada in its longtime quarrel with Democratic Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak and his clampdown on houses of worship in the name of COVID-19.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, which is in Lyon County, Nevada, is allowed to hold in-person services at 25% capacity, which reversed a lower court ruling maintaining that they must abide by state mandates capping church gatherings at 50 people.

“The court has finally made it clear that the government has a duty to respect the First Amendment, and it can’t treat churches like second-class citizens,” said senior pastor Garry Leist in a video posted to Facebook.

“We’re so thankful to the Lord for what He’s done,” Leist added. “We’re singing praises to the Lord today.”

Leist assured his viewers that the church would abide by common sense safety standards, and that “we’re going to be able to take and come back into fellowship without fear, and that’s amazing, and that’s something that we’ve been praying for and asking God to grant throughout this entire process.”

“It’s a blessing to know that the court has recognized that going to church, well, it’s essential,” Leist continued. “It’s something that people need in a time, especially in a time such as these [sic]. And so, be encouraged, know that God is absolutely moving forward. Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley is singing the praises of the Lord on behalf of our fellowship, as well as all of those throughout the country. God is good.”

“What’s going to happen now is that the federal court of appeals is going to issue an injunction that is going to cause this to back down to the trial court for there to be action taken on our behalf,” Leist also said.

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley was the subject of a Supreme Court decision in July that ruled against them, before Justice Amy Coney Barrett had been added to the court. The church had sued the state in May, arguing that it was unfair for churches to be capped at 50 people while casinos and gyms were permitted to operate at 50% capacity.

The Daily Wire reported:

The Supreme Court denied a petition Friday from Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a Nevada church asking for relief from the state’s strict attendance cap on in-person religious services.

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the high court’s majority in an unsigned opinion, which was strongly rebuked in three separate dissenting opinions from the court’s more conservative justices.

“The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito, who later added the case was likely to succeed on First Amendment grounds.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who recently sided with the court’s liberal appointees on a high-profile religious liberty case, wrote a powerful yet succinct dissent in which he argued that the Nevada case currently at hand was truly “simple.” [He wrote:]

This is a simple case. Under the Governor’s edict, a 10-screen “multiplex” may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps six people huddled at each craps table here and a similar number gathered around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting more than 50 worshippers—no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear face masks, no matter the precautions at all. In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. 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.

In the most recent opinion in the church’s favor, Judge Milan D. Smith referenced the more recent Supreme Court ruling in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, which struck down restrictions against houses of worship in New York. “Just like the New York restrictions, the directive treats numerous secular activities and entities significantly better than religious worship services,” Smith wrote.

“Casinos, bowling alleys, retail businesses, restaurants, arcades, and other similar secular entities are limited to 50% of fire-code capacity, yet houses of worship are limited to [50] people regardless of their fire-code capacities. As a result, restrictions in the Directive, although not identical to New York’s, require attendance limitations that create the same ‘disparate treatment’ of religion,” Smith continued.

David Cortman, who serves as senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is a conservative Christian nonprofit that defended the church in court, said in a statement:

This is a significant win. 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.

Sisolak also issued a statement in response to the ruling, saying in part:

The purpose of this Directive – and all of the directives the State has issued since the onset of this global pandemic – was and is to save lives and protect the health of the public. While we’re disappointed by the Court’s decision, we respect and will comply with this Order. I continue to encourage Nevadans to practice their religious faiths in a manner that is safe for them and their families, particularly with the upcoming holidays. I have often talked to Nevadans about my personal faith and I will continue to participate in virtual masses at this time.

Related: ‘Previously Unimaginable’: Alito Criticizes Coronavirus Restrictions, Warns Religious Liberty Becoming ‘Disfavored Right’

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