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VICTOR JOECKS: King Sisolak smacked down by Ninth Circuit over church restrictions

A federal court just delivered a judicial smack down to King Steve Sisolak. His Majesty can no longer discriminate against houses of worship.

On Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Sisolak couldn’t impose stricter virus restrictions on religious gatherings than on many secular businesses.

Sisolak’s “directive treats numerous secular activities and entities significantly better than religious worship services,” the three-judge panel’s opinion said. We “preliminarily enjoin the state from imposing attendance limitations on in-person services in houses of worship that are less favorable than 25 percent of the fire-code capacity.”

The court’s decision aligns with the precedent established by the U.S. Supreme Court last month. It ruled that New York couldn’t treat houses of worship less favorably than secular activities. In his concurrence, Justice Neil Gorsuch savaged the double standard put in place by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“So, at least according to the governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians,” Gorsuch wrote. “Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?”

For months, Sisolak acted in a similar fashion. In April, he prohibited churches, synagogues and mosques from holding services with 10 or more people. That included a ban on drive-in services, during which people stayed in their cars. Businesses that he deemed “essential,” however, remained open to the public.

In May, he allowed retail stores to operate at 50 percent capacity. Houses of worship, however, were limited to 50 people. It wasn’t until October that he permitted churches to meet in groups of 250 or 50 percent capacity, whichever was less. In that same directive, he allowed non-retail indoor venues, including bowling alleys and arcades, to operate at 50 percent capacity.

Before Thanksgiving, Sisolak imposed a host of new restrictions on Nevada. Casinos, restaurants, gyms and other businesses may operate at 25 percent capacity. He prohibited houses of worship, however, from hosting gatherings of more than 50 people regardless of their capacity.

Shortly after the court decision came out, Sisolak announced that he would abide by it. He could have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He wisely avoided giving Gorsuch another chance to harpoon what are obviously unconstitutional restrictions.

Incredibly, Sisolak then told religious leaders he still recommended not having gatherings of more than 50 people. On Sunday, he defended his decision to keep casinos open at 25 percent capacity.

Instead of trying to put a guilt trip on rabbis, imams and pastors, Sisolak should reconsider gathering limits more broadly. I went to a big box store on Sunday. I won’t name it because I don’t want Sisolak to come after it. Its capacity limit was more than 1,500 people. People were consistently shoulder-to-shoulder in various parts of the store. That’s the nature of shopping.

In contrast, it’s much easier to maintain social distancing in a formal gathering, such as a worship service or a show on the Strip. Ushers seat you 6 feet away from other people. Everyone wears masks. You aren’t walking by people as often as you do at the grocery store. You get closer to a cashier than to someone on stage who’s 6 feet away. Sisolak’s order that stage performers be 25 feet away from the audience is arbitrary. Why is 6 feet of social distancing not enough if the person talking is doing live entertainment?

Sisolak’s restrictions on gathering size led the long-running show “Absinthe” to go dark through the end of the year. “Absinthe” and “Atomic Saloon Show” may soon go to Australia. Human Nature, the quartet that used to perform on the Strip, is already there.

The National Finals Rodeo fled to Texas thanks to the governor’s mandates. Now, he’s driving high-profile shows out of the country.


After nine months on the throne, the 9th Circuit’s ruling is yet more evidence that King Sisolak should give up his crown and go back to being governor.

Contact Victor Joecks at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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