The decision comes after two churches, Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain in Las Vegas and Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in Lyon County, had earlier this year challenged Gov. Steve Sisolak’s limits on places of worship, which currently sits at a maximum of 50 people or 25 percent of capacity, whichever is less. Other businesses, including restaurants and casinos, are subject to 25 percent capacity but no hard cap on people.
The Ninth Circuit court’s decision reverses earlier federal court rulings that had upheld the state’s restrictions on indoor worship services. The appellate court ordered the state to stop imposing the attendance caps on houses of worship that are less favorable than 25 percent of the fire-code capacity.
Lawyers for the churches had argued before the appellate court that the governor had arbitrarily ordered tougher restrictions on religion compared to other businesses in the state.
The court reversed a lower court’s decision refusing to grant a preliminary injunction sought by Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley.
In an 11-page ruling (pdf) on Tuesday, the three-member panel wrote, “But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. 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.”
It referred to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that blocked COVID-19 restrictions on houses of worship in New York as one that “represented a seismic shift in Free Exercise law, and compels the result in this case.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese compels us to reverse the district court,” the filing reads. “Just like the New York restrictions, the Directive treats numerous secular activities and entities significantly better than religious worship services. Casinos, bowling alleys, retail businesses, restaurants, arcades, and other similar secular entities are limited to 50 percent of fire-code capacity, yet houses of worship are limited to fifty people regardless of their fire-code capacities.”
In a separate four-page opinion that reverses a similar district court ruling on Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain, the panel said that the state’s restrictions “treats numerous secular activities and entities significantly better than religious worship services.”
Sisolak said that he will comply with the order.
“While we’re disappointed by the court’s decision, we respect and will comply with this order,” he said in a statement to news outlets. “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.”
David Cortman, a lawyer for the Alliance Defending Freedom representing the Dayton Valley church , said in a statement that the ruling was a “significant win.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.