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Gov. Steve Sisolak steps away from the podium after an update on coronavirus during a news conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A federal judge has ruled against a rural Nevada church that argued assembly restrictions put in place by Gov. Steve Sisolak to maintain social distancing are being “selectively enforced” against religious establishments, violating their First Amendment rights.

Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley first filed a lawsuit on May 22 requesting a temporary restraining order and injunction against Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Lyon County Sheriff Frank Hunewill in order to prevent any criminal or civil penalties that might be incurred because of assembly. The court denied both motions.

“The Court agrees that church services may in some respects be similar to casinos, in that both are indoor locations in which a large number of people may remain in close proximity for an extended period of time,” Judge Richard Boulware wrote in the decision issued Thursday. “The Court, however, disagrees that casinos are actually treated more favorably than places of worship.”

The Lyon County church had argued that secular establishments and activities had been allowed to operate with fewer regulations, pointing to casinos as well as to organized protests that have taken place in Reno and Las Vegas. 

But the court said that casinos actually face “heightened regulations and scrutiny” compared to religious establishments as they are subject to limitations designated by the governor’s emergency directive as well as restrictions from the Gaming Control Board. 

Boulware also said that outdoor protest activities are not comparable to religious services and that, therefore, regulations placed on the two cannot be compared. 

Additionally, Boulware stated that Hunewill had indicated he had “no intention” of using law enforcement resources to enforce any directives against places of worship so an injunction was unnecessary.

Another Calvary Chapel church in Las Vegas filed a similar suit May 20 and also had its request for injunction denied. 

The decisions come two weeks after the Department of Justice sent a letter to Sisolak claiming that his ban on religious services may infringe on First Amendment protections and after 200 pastors in the state signed a joint letter to the governor calling on him to lift the ban.

Jason Guinasso, who represents Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, stated that the church has filed an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“What concerns us deeply with this District Court decision is that the Governor is being given wide deference to implement substantial restrictions on the church without any check on his power whatsoever,” Guinasso said in an email to The Nevada Independent on Monday. “If this Court’s decision is not overturned... then the Constitution has an unwritten pandemic exception that affords the Governor unfettered power to do whatever he wants without regard to the Constitutional rights of churches.”

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