Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) went to the Ninth Circuit arguing on behalf of Calvary Chapel of Dayton Valley, a church in Nevada, for something that should be guaranteed in the Constitution: the right to worship.
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States in March 2020, churches across the country heeded the dire warnings of health officials and temporarily suspended in-person worship services. Many of those churches had no idea that nearly a year later, those restrictions would seemingly continue while other businesses were allowed to reopen.
“We responded very, very quickly out of concern and not knowing exactly what was going to happen,” Senior Pastor Gary Leist of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley shared with The Daily Citizen. “We kind of followed the directions of what was coming out of Washington, with the shutdowns, and we did. And we closed our church services, we went to an online format and did that for several months until there was an allowanced to do drive-in church services and we did that for about three weeks.
“Then our governor in Nevada opened up casinos and opened up restaurants and opened up all of the other businesses that were deemed essential. We kind of figured that he forgot that the church is essential also.”
That’s been happening in a lot of states, and several churches have decided to take steps to legally defend their First Amendment freedoms, including Calvary Chapel.
“At that point in time, it became necessary for us to look at taking some sort of action in order to be able to protect our right to assemble and our right to come together and worship the Lord. And that’s when we got involved with ADF and started our journey where we are now seeing ourselves in the Ninth Circuit,” Pastor Leist said.
“I never expected in any way, shape, or form that I would see this assault on religious liberty in this country,” he said. “That there would be a situation where we would have to turn to the legal system to try to enact protections that our founders put into our Constitution, not as a means of authorization but by recognizing the government doesn’t have the authority to usurp God and the worship of him at any point in time.
“We never thought we would see such things.”
Getting into litigation with the state is no easy task, but the parishioners of Calvary Chapel were happy to support this fight for religious freedom and the right to worship.
“Locally, our fellowship has been very supportive,” Pastor Leist said. “We went into this with the understanding of the importance and the significance of coming together, of meeting together as a church. Not just from a mandated standpoint of what we? believe God has called us to do in worshiping him. But the necessity for folk’s wellbeing. For our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing. The family of God needs to come together in order to stay healthy.”
This fight is incredibly important and unique. Perhaps never in the history of the country have churches broadly been under such attack and scrutiny by certain state governments over their right to assemble, while other organizations, business, casinos, restaurants, and, in California, even strip clubs are given more freedom to operate.
“We can look at this in relation to a spiritual battle,” Pastor Leist said. “One of the ways that the enemy of man, Satan himself, is going to take advantage of this situation is to try and stifle the church. I believe that many of these people in these liberal and progressive mindsets, don’t recognize the necessity of worship or God. That’s what I see from our standpoint, it’s necessary to stand up and be stronger and louder.”
In order to do that, Calvary Chapel has relied on Alliance Defending Freedom, which has taken up a couple of cases on behalf of churches this year.
“I think that for many years, up until I’d say 2020, I think most people looked at religious liberty battles as issues that were fought from afar,” ADF Ryan Tucker, who serves as senior counsel and the director of the Center for Christmas Ministries with ADF, said.
“It’s one thing for Jack Phillips, the cake artist in Colorado, and it’s another thing for Barronelle Stutzman, the florist in Washington, to be attacked. You sort of look at those as one-offs, but this year really underscored exactly what Gary was talking about, that the church itself is the target. The religious liberty battles have reached the very doorstep of the church. It’s shocking how quickly that transpired, but I think it goes to the spiritual battles and the spiritual warfare.”
The case, as with many other COVID-related lawsuits that have been argued through the court system, is a reflection of the times. However, since Nevada thrives on the gambling industry, Calvary Chapel’s case reflects some unique circumstances.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a case with these same sets of facts,” Tucker said. “When you have casinos operating at 50% capacity with hundreds if not thousands of people on the Las Vegas strip gambling right next to each other, and you compare that to a church with its doors limited to 50 people, it really shocks the conscience. So, I think this really underscores how far these governor restrictions have gone and underscores the importance of the church taking a stand against it.”
Pastor Leist also pointed out how the fear of the pandemic itself may be driving more people to the gambling tables.
“What we’re looking at right now is a perfect scenario, if you will, for the enemy to take advantage of the government, the legal system and a pandemic in order to create fear,” Pastor Leist said. “The fear that is driving people indoors and inside, not that there isn’t a real issue of a disease here, there is, but we’re not supposed to be afraid. We’re supposed to be those that trust God, and act responsibly and do so.”
The case will hopefully be decided quickly, since it is related to COVID, but it may make its way up to the Supreme Court for the second time. Earlier this year, ADF and the church has requested that the nation’s highest court grant emergency relief allowing the church to meet, while the case continued in the lower courts. The court, however, ruled in favor of the state of Nevada. But that was before Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the bench. Things may be different now.
“Standing on our First Amendment freedoms is important, and the church and its citizens are not second-class citizens,” Tucker said. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to get a great result out of the Ninth Circuit, but we’re prepared for what may come. Whether it’s there in Nevada or Supreme Court or elsewhere. We’re going to keep fighting until we see the First Amendment respected the way it was intended.”
The case is Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak.
Photo from Alliance Defending Freedom