Gov. Steve Sisolak’s ban on church services was an unnecessary overreach that raises significant constitutional concerns. Less than a month ago, he even said he didn’t have the power to do it.
On Wednesday, Sisolak banned churches from in-person worship services of 10 or more during the coronavirus emergency. That explicitly includes events when church members come together and stay in their cars during a service. Sisolak said that those violating his directive would face civil or criminal penalties.
Yes, he’s telling police to arrest people for going to church. Sisolak’s order is outrageous abuse of government power — according to Sisolak himself.
“I cannot and will not say that places of worship should be closed,” Sisolak said on March 17. He was right. And the First Amendment hasn’t changed in the past four weeks.
“I strongly urge our faith leaders to find ways to deliver to your congregation without bringing them together in person,” Sisolak added.
They have been. Turns out that the vast majority of faith leaders — whether they’re pastors, priests, imams or rabbis — don’t want their congregations catching contagious diseases. They didn’t need to be ordered to move services online. They just needed to be asked, backed up by solid evidence of the contagiousness of coronavirus.
Sisolak said he doesn’t know how many churches were still meeting, saying he’d heard only “anecdotal stories” and what he’s seen in the media. The Review-Journal previously reported that one church was planning an in-person Easter service while taking measures to ensure social distancing. They expected 35 to 50 attendees but have now canceled the service.
This makes it worse. Places of worship aren’t endangering public health. Almost all of them closed voluntarily. Holding a drive-up service isn’t a health hazard either. There’s no evidence coronavirus can spread when people stay inside their cars. Sisolak is trampling on the First Amendment to achieve negligible results.
“My primary purpose is to keep people alive and stop the spread of this disease,” Sisolak said about closing churches, synagogues and mosques. “Scientific evidence and the experts have shown us that when groups gather together, the disease will spread.”
That means coronavirus is spreading at construction sites, yet they remain open. Two workers at Allegiant Stadium have tested positive for coronavirus. Three workers have tested positive at Resorts World Las Vegas. But Sisolak says he’s kept construction, mining and manufacturing open because he doesn’t want another 100,000 workers filing for unemployment.
Allowing construction to continue is reasonable. There’s always going to be a trade-off between maximizing public health and preserving and eventually reopening the economy. But this means that Sisolak is holding worship gatherings to a higher standard than construction jobs. That’s a mistake. Because the vast majority of religious leaders already complied voluntarily with his request, it looks vindictive, too.
At least there is one glaring loophole in Sisolak’s order. If the police arrest you for worshipping, just tell them you’re homeless.