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Nevada lawyers petition federal judge to reopen churches

Updated May 22, 2020 - 2:39 pm

As President Donald Trump called for places of worship to reopen over Memorial Day weekend, lawyers for a Las Vegas church asked a federal judge to force Gov. Steve Sisolak to allow parishioners back into pews.

In a complaint filed this week on behalf of Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain on North Rancho Drive and its parishioners, Nevada lawyers wrote that the governor was wrong to force the church to remain closed while some businesses reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Late Thursday, those attorneys, Sigal Chattah and Joey Gilbert, filed an emergency petition for a preliminary injunction, essentially asking a judge to declare that Sisolak’s orders violate constitutional rights. Chattah and Gilbert focused on the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, which protects freedom of religion.

“At a minimum, the protections of the Free Exercise Clause pertain if the law at issue discriminates against some or all religious beliefs or regulates or prohibits conduct because it is undertaken for religious reasons,” the lawyers wrote.

Officials with the governor’s office have declined to comment on the litigation, and no response was filed as of Friday afternoon, according to the federal court’s online system.

In a May 7 order that allowed restaurants, barbershops and hair salons and most retail businesses to reopen with certain guidelines and limitations, Sisolak ordered Nevadans to limit public and private gatherings to no more than 10 people.

The church’s petition stated that Sisolak’s directives “burden religious freedom,” arguing that some parishioners may not have access to videoconferencing technology to participate in remote services and that even that would not be “an adequate substitute for what it means when ‘two or three gather in my Name,’ ” quoting a Bible verse.

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a road map for reopening schools, pools, restaurants and child care facilities but held back on guidance for mosques, synagogues and churches.

But on Friday, the president called houses of worship “essential services” and suggested that new directives were imminent.

“I want the churches to open,” he said. “And the people want the churches to open. And I think you’ll have something come down very soon from CDC. We want to get our churches back.”

Chattah and Gilbert argued that mass gatherings at churches, synagogues and mosques pose no more of a health risk than crowds at airports, offices and production facilities.

“Yet the exemption for religious activities has been eliminated while it remains for a multitude of activities that appear comparable in terms of health risks,” the petition stated. “If the State trusts its people to innovate around a crisis in their professional lives, surely it can trust the same people to do the same things in the exercise of their faith.”

Parishioners would be willing to practice social distancing and adhere to hygiene requirements, the lawyers wrote. Although they did not reference face coverings, Chattah and Gilbert added that worshipers “do not ask to share a chalice.”

The petition pointed out that three major monotheistic religions have been precluded from practicing at their places of worship during the pandemic — Jews during Passover, Christians on Easter and Muslims at Ramadan.

“The places of worship are dying to open,” Chattah wrote in an email to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We’re in the middle of Ramadan with Eid being tomorrow night. The Jews have Shavuot on Thursday, and all churches want to open this weekend for Pentacost.”

Contact David Ferrara at dferrara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039. Follow @randompoker on Twitter.

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