Washington — The Justice Department is raising concerns with Nevada's governor over restrictions on in-person worship services put in place as the state continues to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus while beginning to move toward a phased reopening of shuttered businesses.
Emergency directives issued by Governor Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, prohibit houses of worship from holding in-person services with 10 or more people. But Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, warned Sisolak that churches and other faith-based organizations subject to the restrictions are treated differently than certain businesses and other groups.
Under the governor's order, drive-in religious services are allowed to continue as long as congregants remain in their vehicles and maintain at least six feet from others.
"We understand these directives were issued in the midst of an uncertain situation, which may have required quick decisions based on changing information," Dreiband wrote in a letter to Sisolak on Monday. "We are concerned, however, that the flat prohibition against 10 or more persons gathering for in-person worship services — regardless of whether they maintain social distancing guidelines — impermissibly treats religious and nonreligious organizations unequally."
Restaurants, for example, are permitted to reopen if they operate at no more than 50% capacity and adhere to conditions outlined by the state. Hair and nail salons are also allowed to reopen if they adhere to "strict social distancing requirements," but are not subject to occupancy restrictions.
Dreiband said the rules may violate the First Amendment and urged Sisolak to "help preserve" the Free Exercise Clause by altering his emergency directives to remedy "their unequal treatment of places of worship."
The Justice Department has urged federal prosecutors to monitor state and local directives that could infringe upon constitutional rights and civil liberties, including those that may discriminate against religious institutions.
"If a state or local ordinance crosses the line from an appropriate exercise of authority to stop the spread of COVID-19 into an overbearing infringement of constitutional statutory protections, the Department of Justice may have an obligation to address that overreach in federal court," Attorney General William Barr wrote in a memo to U.S. attorneys last month.
The Justice Department has not hesitated to wade into legal fights between houses or worship and local and state leaders that have arisen from orders restricting in-person gatherings.
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed a statement of interest in support of Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Chincoteague Island, Virginia, which is challenging Governor Ralph Northam's executive orders after its pastor received a summons for holding a 16-person service in early April.
The Justice Department also signaled its support for a Greenville, Mississippi, church in April after its members were fined for attending a drive-in service in its parking lot, which violated a local stay-at-home order.