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Seaman, Las Vegas faith leaders criticize limit on church gatherings

Updated April 9, 2020 - 10:16 pm

A Las Vegas City Council member and a group of religious leaders are speaking out against Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directive that bans gatherings of 10 or more people at places of worship.

Ward 2 Councilwoman Victoria Seaman gathered with faith leaders Thursday to speak to reporters about her opposition to the governor’s order.

“We all understand that these are trying times and that we need to make sacrifices to get through them,” Seaman said. “We do, however, disagree that those sacrifices need to include the free exercise of religion that this country was built on.”

Seaman’s public opposition comes one day after Sisolak announced the order, which includes a ban on pop-up and drive-in services. She said she considered the prohibition of drive-in services an overreach.

Pastor Paul Marc Goulet of the International Church of Las Vegas said his congregation wanted to hold Easter services in the church’s parking lot with people attending in their cars. Goulet, like Seaman, called the directive an overreach. He asked that Sisolak reconsider his decision.

“We’re asking politely, we’re asking you with all of our hearts, that this is something that’s both physical and emotional and relational,” Goulet said.

Seaman said late Thursday that City Attorney Brad Jerbic determined the International Church of Las Vegas will be able to hold its drive-in Easter service as long as no one leaves their cars and nothing is handed out.

“So we are elated that they can have their Easter drive-in service, and we think that it’s completely following all the guidelines of safety for the coronavirus,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Nevada’s coronavirus response effort declined to comment on the concerns Thursday, but Sisolak said Wednesday that the decision was not easy. A devout Catholic and frequent churchgoer himself, the governor said he prayed about his decision before announcing it.

Sisolak previously issued a general ban on gatherings of 10 or more people in March.

Pastor David Teis of Liberty Baptist Church also took issue with Sisolak’s directive.

“We do not believe that the governor has a right constitutionally to tell us what we can and cannot do,” Teis said.

Because the free exercise of religion is a fundamental constitutional right enshrined in the First Amendment, any restrictions must pass the highest level of legal scrutiny. Rules must be written narrowly to serve a compelling government interest — in this case, to prevent of the spread of disease.

Sisolak encouraged religious leaders to use alternatives to in-person services, such as online streaming. The International Church of Las Vegas website said services are only being held online until further notice.

“We are living in unique times. Science tells us that putting large numbers of people together during a pandemic for any reason … is an invitation for disease to do its work,” Sisolak said in announcing the order Wednesday.

As of Thursday night, the state had reported more than 80 deaths from the novel coronavirus.

In Sacramento, California, a substitute teacher who died from the coronavirus was a member of a church where five other members later tested positive for the disease, according to the Sacramento Bee. The church closed its doors immediately after staffers there noticed people with coronavirus symptoms, the newspaper reported.

Contact Blake Apgar at bapgar@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5298. Follow @blakeapgar on Twitter.

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