Department of Justice letter urges Sisolak to remove some Nevada limits on worship services

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Sisolak

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The US Department of Justice is advising Nevada to remove some restrictions placed on worship services when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In a May 25 letter addressed to Gov. Steve Sisolak, Civil Rights Division chief Eric S. Dreiband and US Attorney for the District of Nevada Nicholas A. Trutanich point to the different rules that are being imposed on churches, restaurants and hair salons.

“To protect constitutional values, we urge you to help preserve the Free Exercise
Clause of the First Amendment by amending earlier Emergency Directives and
remedying their unequal treatment of places of worship,” the letter states.

The civil rights implications of those different rules could open the state to lawsuits.

While many church leaders have heeded government directives on social distancing and health recommendations intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, some congregations have grown impatient with rules that prevent church services.

Sisolak’s Phase 1 rules are now in the Justice Department’s sights:

Given Emergency Directive 16 and subsequent guidance on Nevada’s phased reopening, we write to address civil rights concerns arising from the continued limitation of in-person worship services for ten or more persons. Attorney General William Barr recently issued a statement on Religious Practice and Social Distancing, in which he noted that state and local laws must be applied evenly to avoid disparate impact on faith-based organizations. On May 22, 2020, President Donald J. Trump announced that places of worship are essential and requested that States authorize their immediate reopening. And also on May 22, the CDC published Interim Guidance For Communities of Faith, providing best practices that those communities should consider when preparing to reconvene in-person gatherings.

May 25 letter from Department of Justice leaders to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak

The pressure from the federal government could be coming just as Sisolak is ready to change those rules and move to Phase 2 of the COVID-19 recovery in Nevada.

Specifically, the letter points to Phase 1 rules that allow 50% occupancy in restaurants while in-person church services are limited to groups of less than 10. Hair and nail salons are currently open and operating in conditions that concern some health officials, while churches find ways to hold drive-through services.

DOJ officials acknowledge that the rules on worship services were crafted in times of uncertainty and in an attempt to balance rights with public safety.

“We are concerned, however, that the flat prohibition against 10 or more persons gathering for inperson worship services — regardless of whether they maintain social distancing
guidelines — impermissibly treats religious and nonreligious organizations unequally.
These directives may violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, unless the
government can prove a compelling interest and pursued the least restrictive means
possible.”

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