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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)

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s ban on in-person worship services may infringe on the First Amendment protection to freely exercise religion, a letter from the Department of Justice says.

The letter, sent Monday, says Sisolak’s ban of in-person worship services of 10 or more people treats religious organizations differently from their nonreligious counterparts. The letter cites examples of other businesses permitted to re-open under state guidelines, such as restaurants being able to operate at 50 percent capacity. 

“We are concerned, however, that the flat prohibition against ten or more persons gathering for in-person worship services — regardless of whether they maintain social distancing guidelines — impermissibly treats religious and nonreligious organizations unequally,” the letter says.

The ban may violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the letter says. It encourages Sisolak to amend his previous orders. 

A spokesperson from the governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The letter comes days after a Lyon County church filed a federal lawsuit against Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford over the ban and about a week after 200 pastors sent Sisolak a strongly worded letter urging him to allow churches to implement guidelines for in-person worship.

A separate lawsuit challenging the in-person worship service ban was filed last week on behalf of Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain church in Las Vegas. Federal District Court Judge Richard Boulware II scheduled a hearing on that case for June 2, and ordered the state to file a response to the lawsuit by Thursday denoting when they would be able to reopen and have services, and any restrictions that may be imposed when they reopen.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom allowed churches to re-open yesterday, days after President Donald Trump deemed houses of worship “essential” and pressured governors to allow reopening. 

This story was updated at 3:40 p.m. on May 26, 2020 to add information about a lawsuit filed on behalf of a Las Vegas church.

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