RENO — A rural church trying to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to suspend Nevada’s 50-person cap on worship services is accusing Gov. Steve Sisolak of adding the church’s county to a list of those with elevated cases of COVID-19 as part of a “litigation tactic.”
Cavalry Chapel Dayton Valley east of Reno also argues Sisolak should no longer be allowed to defend the attendance cap as a “temporary” emergency response necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“Far from being a temporary measure, the governor’s restrictions on houses of worship have spanned nearly four months, with no end in sight,” the church’s lawyers wrote. “Even the rosiest predictions are that a safe and effective vaccine will not be ready before next year.”
Sharpening their attack on a policy they say illegally treats casinos and other secular businesses more leniently than religious gatherings, the lawyers point to Sisolak’s July 10 emergency directive mandating bar closures in seven counties with elevated disease transmission.
Casinos, restaurants, arcades, hair salons and water parks are among the businesses statewide still allowed to operate at 50% or normal capacity instead of a hard attendance cap.
“The governor allows hundreds to thousands to assemble in pursuit of financial fortunes but only 50 to gather in pursuit of spiritual ones. That is unconstitutional,” the church said.
Lyon County's Cavalry Chapel appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last month after a U.S. judge in Nevada upheld the state’s policy.
The appellate court is still considering the appeal, but it has denied the church’s request for an emergency injunction in the meantime. The ruling July 2 pointed to the Supreme Court’s refusal in May to strike down California’s limit on the size of religious gatherings.
Nevada’s lawyers said last week several courts nationwide have followed the Supreme Court’s lead in upholding state authority to impose emergency restrictions in response to COVID-19. “Temporarily narrowing restrictions on the size of mass gatherings, including for religious services, protects the health and well-being of Nevada citizens during a global pandemic,” they wrote.
The governor ordered bars closed in Lyon, Washoe, Clark and four other counties based on thresholds in at least two of three categories — the test positivity rate over seven days, the overall case rate over 14 days, and the average number of tests per day per 100,000 people.
Lyon was included “even though it has just 33 active cases out of roughly 57,000 people — an active infection rate of 0.058%,” the church said.
“The classification appears to be a litigation tactic that serves no public health purpose. It is on the governor’s list simply because he chose to punish Lyon County for its low number of COVID-19 tests,” it said.
“The actual COVID-19 hotpots” are Clark and Washoe counties, where most of Nevada’s casinos, tourism and population is located in Las Vegas and Reno-Sparks, with 96.25% of all cases statewide, it said.
Lyon County made the list based on its positivity rate and failure to test at least 150 people daily per 100,000 population — testing 79.8 at that time per 100,000. Only four of Nevada’s 17 counties were testing at a lower rate. Clark was testing about 300 and Washoe about 200 per day per 100,000.