Churches in Nevada have experienced a Christmas miracle, as the Ninth Circuit recently sided with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in the religious freedom case Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak.
Last week, The Daily Citizen shared the story of Calvary Chapel Dayton, a small but passionate church fighting against Nevada’s restrictions that allowed more people to gamble in casinos than attend churches. The case was argued in front of the Ninth Circuit, which ruled in favor of Calvary Chapel just in time for Christmas Eve services.
“We were very pleased with the decision. The Ninth Circuit enjoined the state from being able to treat the church in an unconstitutional manner,” Ryan Tucker, senior counsel for ADF, said in an interview with The Daily Citizen.
“There is no constitutional right to gamble, but there is one that protects attending religious worship services. And the Ninth Circuit made that very clear in the oral argument before the court and in the decision that just came down this week,” he continued.
“What the court said was that you really need to look at this through an appropriate lens. What I mean by that, is rather than apply some sort of deferential standard that a lot of these courts have been applying to these COVID cases, instead you look at it through the lens of the First Amendment, which is the proper legal analysis.”
It’s an argument that many attorneys across the country have been making in front of the courts, often to no avail. It wasn’t until the recent Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, where the court ruled in favor of the Diocese against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, that churches have been given a much stronger legal standing.
“So, the Ninth Circuit took this Diocese of New York decision and applied that correctly to this case,” Tucker said. “And in essence, they asked does the state treat a similar secular activity better than the church? If they are treating them better than the church, you have a constitutional problem. And here, that’s what we had.
“We had casinos, we had amusement parks, we had restaurants all being treated better than the church. What the Ninth Circuit said is no you can no longer do that, you must look at this through the First Amendment.”
The timing for this decision could not be better, as churches across the country begin the process of celebrating the holy week of Christmas. No one could be more excited than the senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, Gary Leist.
“The biggest difference between this past Sunday and this current Sunday is that Pastor Leist will not have to actually tell members of his church to please stay home,” Tucker explained. “Those were words that came out of his mouth, they were abhorrent to him. He couldn’t believe that he was asking members of his church to stay home and watch online, just to keep the numbers so he could comport with what the governor was asking him to do. That was gut wrenching to him, and the opposite of what he felt called to do. It’s a welcome relief.”
This will not only help Calvary Chapel, but also churches across the country as well that are facing similar state-imposed restrictions.
“Yesterday we filed a preliminary injunction in the state of Washington, asking Gov. Jay Inslee to stop treating churches as second-class citizens,” Tucker said. “And that motion or hearing will take place next Wednesday, but in the course of briefing that case we utilized this decision from the Ninth Circuit. And of course, Washington is also in the Ninth Circuit. So, we’re hopeful that this Ninth Circuit decision combined with the Diocese of New York Supreme Court decision, will hopefully pave the way for churches not just in Nevada but also across the United States.”
The churches involved in the case are Westgate Chapel and Christ Church of Spokane.
There are hopes that in time for Christmas Gov. Inslee will change his orders in the face of this most recent court decision.
“We’re starting to see the courts gradually apply what the Supreme Court has laid out very clearly to lower courts, which is you can’t treat the church like a second-class citizen,” he said. “If you are treating churches less than these secular comparators, then the state has to explain why that is so. In all of these states, whether that’s New York, California, Colorado or New Jersey, and certainly here recently in Nevada, the states have not been able to meet that high bar because there is a reason why we call it our first freedoms. Free exercise and free speech are rights most dear to us and to this nation, and slowly but surely courts recognize that. More practically, we’re starting to see some governors recognize it too.”
For example, in Colorado Gov. Jared Polis recently amended his order for churches in response to a case from a Colorado church that is currently at the Supreme Court.
“The United States Supreme Court is not going to take kindly to executive officials trampling on First Amendment freedoms,” he said.
It’s a sign that things are starting to move in a more positive direction, especially when it come to religious liberty.
“I’m hopeful going into 2021,” Tucker said. “As we see these good decisions from the Supreme Court out of New York and the recent victory in the Ninth Circuit on behalf of Nevada churches and a smattering of other victories we’ve seen at the tail end of the year. I’m very hopeful as we move into 2021 that we’re going to see a pulling back of all the government trampling of our freedoms.”
Photo from Alliance Defending Freedom