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Appeals court rules against state church attendance cap

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday reversed earlier federal court rulings and sided with two Nevada churches that have argued that the state’s COVID-19 restrictions are unconstitutional because they place harsher attendance limits on religious gatherings than on casinos and other secular businesses.

Previous rulings upheld Nevada’s hard cap on the size of indoor worship services. The court instructed the district judges to preliminary enjoin Nevada from imposing attendance limits for churches that are stricter than those for other gatherings or businesses.

“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” a three-member appellate panel wrote in an 11-page ruling reversing the lower court’s refusal to grant an injunction sought by Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in Lyon County.

Attendance at casinos, restaurants, bars and numerous other businesses currently is limited to 25% of capacity, but churches are subject to a cap of 50 people or 25% of capacity, whichever is less. Others subject to the 25% capacity limit but no hard cap include bowling alleys, arcades, amusement parks, breweries, wineries, museums, zoos, gyms and fitness centers.

Since Nov. 24, Nevada has enforced tightened restrictions as a COVID-19 surge has broken records in daily cases and deaths, putting more state residents per capita in hospitals for COVID-19 than any other state.

Gov. Steve Sisolak expressed disappointment at the rulings but said the state would comply. He urged faith leaders to voluntarily abide by public health measures “especially when COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths are at an all-time high in Nevada.”

Nothing in the order prevents the state from imposing a limit on church attendance, as long as those limits are in line with limits on other indoor gatherings and places of business.

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