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9th Circuit Rules for Religious Freedom in NV, Supreme Court Knocks Down Ruling on NJ Worship


The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled in favor of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley and Calvary Chapel Lone Mountain in their lawsuits against Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak's worship bans. 

As CBN News reported in July, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against injunctive relief for the Nevada churches while the appeal was pending in the Ninth Circuit. However, now that the high court has ruled in favor of New York City synagogues and Roman Catholic churches in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo and Agudath Israel v. Cuomo, that created the mandate to strike down the Nevada governor's orders. 

Gov. Sisolak's current order limits houses of worship to "the lesser of 25 percent of the listed fire code capacity or 50 persons." In comparison, it imposes only a 25 percent limit on commercial and retail establishments, including casinos, bowling alleys, arcades, amusement parks, restaurants, breweries, wineries, museums, zoos, and aquariums; gyms, and other fitness facilities. 

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a 3-0 opinion stated, "The Supreme Court's recent decision . . . arguably represented a seismic shift in Free Exercise law, and compels the result in this case." 

In the decision, the Ninth Circuit ruled, "The Directive treats numerous secular activities and entities significantly better than religious worship services. We must, therefore, review the Directive under strict scrutiny. Although slowing the spread of COVID-19 is a compelling interest, the Directive is not narrowly tailored to serve that interest because, for example, the Directive could have tied the maximum attendance allowed at a religious service to the size of the house of worship. Accordingly, the Directive does not survive strict scrutiny review."

The appeals court also wrote, "The Supreme Court's decision in Roman Catholic Diocese compels us to reverse the district court. Just like the New York restrictions, the Directive treats numerous secular activities and entities significantly better than religious worship services. Casinos, bowling alleys, retail businesses, restaurants, arcades, and other similar secular entities are limited to 50% of fire-code capacity, yet houses of worship are limited to fifty people regardless of their fire-code capacities. As a result, the restrictions in the Directive, although not identical to New York's, require attendance limitations that create the same 'disparate treatment' of religion." 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, "The dominoes continue to fall following the Supreme Court's decision that these COVID restrictions violate the First Amendment. It is past time. The governors need to remove these unconstitutional restrictions on houses of worship."

Supreme Court Tells District Court to Rethink Its Ruling Against NJ Priest and Rabbi 

Also on Tuesday, the US Supreme Court sent a lawsuit brought by a New Jersey Catholic parish priest and an Orthodox Jewish rabbi back to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey to be reconsidered in light of the high court's ruling rejecting New York Gov. Cuomo's discrimination against religious gatherings. 

As CBN News reported in November, attorneys with the Thomas More Society had filed for an emergency application for an injunction from the high court in a federal religious liberty lawsuit against New Jersey Gov. Philip Murphy (D). 

The nonprofit public interest law firm filed the application with Justice Samuel Alito on behalf of Rev. Kevin Robinson, a Catholic parish priest, and Rabbi Yisrael Knopfler, leader of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, who are suing Gov. Murphy and his administration for discriminatory abuses of religious freedom in their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their application alleged that New Jersey's COVID-19 restrictions limiting houses of worship while imposing less restrictive limits on secular activities that evidently pose the same or greater risk of viral transmission violates Robinson's and Knopfler's constitutional rights to the Free Exercise of Religion and Free Speech and Assembly. 

"This is one of dozens of lawsuits across the country pitting houses of worship, their leaders, and congregants against gubernatorial abuse of power," explained Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara. "This order shows that the Supreme Court is truly interested in ensuring churches get equal treatment with secular activities, even if the Governor Murphy's edicts are not nearly as 'severe' as New York's 10- and 25-person limits on houses of worship in Governor Cuomo's 'Red Zone' or California's total ban on indoor worship in Governor Newsom's 'Purple Tier'." 

"Under Murphy's executive orders in New Jersey, houses of worship are limited to 25% capacity, while Costco, Walmart, factories, schools, and other venues, all get better treatment. What is particularly significant in this case is that the high court is not only recognizing the error of outright bans or virtual bans on houses of worship which were at issue in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo in New York and Harvest Rock v. Newsom in California but also acknowledges the disparately applied capacity percentage limits also violate the Free Exercise clause," Ferrara noted. 

"We are getting a very clear message from the United States Supreme Court that government cannot set up any rules that apply to places of worship or worship activities, but not to other,  comparable secular activities. This is the very crux of religious discrimination and a blatant abuse of the United States Constitution and its Amendments," he added. 

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