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Members of local church groups and citizens pray during the immigration forum hosted by Nevadans for Common Good on Monday, April 17, 2017 at All Saints Episcopal Church. (Photo by Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Churches that have spent the past six months meeting virtually or in groups capped at 50 as part of a statewide effort to control the coronavirus will have some more breathing room at Sunday services this weekend.

But Gov. Steve Sisolak’s new directive expanding the size of allowable gatherings has drawn mixed reactions. Churches that hold 2,500 people or less are allowed to convene 250 people or 50 percent of their capacity, whichever is less — a setup that means many churches are still well under the attendance levels they normally have.

“It doesn't give us that much of a room,” Pastor Cesar Minera of Ministerio Palabra de Vida in Reno said in an interview for the IndyMatters podcast. “For us, it would mean about 75, 80 people, so still, we are short from where we are supposed to be.”

The policy change comes as churches’ feelings about the coronavirus safety directives have evolved over the months. Pastor Brent Brooks said his congregation, Reno Christian Fellowship, was one of the first to go virtual when coronavirus first started taking hold in Nevada. 

The church of about 700 people moved almost entirely online, turning the sanctuary into a studio and gathering no more than 10 people together on stage to lead worship through online broadcasts. 

The capacity limit eventually rose to 50, but the church later began to sour on the limit, feeling they were being singled out with a hard cap on attendees. All the while, casinos — part of a tourism industry that supports a third of the jobs in the state and supplies a third of state general fund revenue — were allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity.

“In my mind [it] was because we were on a nonprofit basis,” Brooks said. “As an organization, we were not paying taxes … And it felt like we were being discriminated against, because we didn't have the financial clout that was getting his attention.”

It was a familiar feeling for Minera, who was reminded of the discrepancy when he left his church, which is a block away from the Peppermill Casino in Reno.

“I would leave church, let's say at 7:30, after our 6 p.m. service, having 50 people inside of the church,” he said. “Yet both parking lots for the Peppermill … will be full to capacity, which means thousands upon thousands of people.”

Jason Guinasso, a Reno lawyer and associate pastor at Minera’s church, took the matter to court on behalf of plaintiff congregation Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley in one of at least two Nevada lawsuits on the issue. To this day, he said he’s still unclear whether any clergy were consulted in developing the restrictions and isn’t sure what channels churches were supposed to use to communicate to the governor their recommendations.

“I think the governor made his biggest mistake was not trusting us to do the right thing by our people,” Guinasso said. “Notwithstanding the fact that there are going to be bad actors in any group, when he gave a lot of latitude to the casinos ... I just thought he should have given us the same kind of deference.”

Sisolak often responded to criticism about the restrictions by pointing to his own experiences as a devout Catholic. If anyone wanted to return to church services in person, it was the governor, he said on several occasions, but he had to consider the safety of people like his 93-year-old mother and had transitioned to watching Mass online.

Early science on the virus backed concerns about services being a significant risk particularly when people are singing — a fear highlighted when a church choir practice in Washington state became one of the country’s first superspreader events. 

The legal challenge on the limitations and request for an emergency injunction on Sisolak’s directive made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was rejected 5-4 in July. While prevailing justices did not explain their decision, dissenting justices issued blistering criticisms of the directive.

“The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito.

That initial setback aside, Guinasso is still pursuing the case in hopes the courts rule on its underlying merits. He said it’s essential that people challenge limits on executive power to avoid more nefarious situations, such as when Japanese Americans were interned in camps during World War II and the Supreme Court condoned the practice on the basis of national security concerns.

“I hope that as we bring these constitutional issues to the forefront,” Guinasso said, “that we won't be embarrassed 40 years from now to say that we didn't think highly enough of our constitutional guarantees and rights, enough to make sure that they endure during the time of our greatest crisis.”

Still, pastors said allowing larger gatherings is a step in the right direction. Minera said the restrictions have prevented youth from socializing with their peers and families from getting the support they need in a challenging time. Online services, while allowing a wider reach, lend themselves to distracted participants, and Minera believes about 20 percent of the congregation has become completely disconnected from the church and unresponsive during the separation.

Brooks, meanwhile, said he’s navigating a congregation that includes a wide range of opinions on safety measures, from people terrified to returning to in-person gatherings to those who want to meet in-person but chafe at being required to wear a mask. The latest change, at least, gives the church a bit more flexibility.

“We're just very glad that … we're not being put in a separate category where it seems like we're being considered the most dangerous place in Nevada,” Brooks said. “This was the right change. It was an overdue change.”

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