- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Justice Department on Tuesday warned Nevada that its plan to allow businesses to reopen gradually discriminates against churches.

The department’s top civil-rights official told Gov. Steve Sisolak that the reopening plan violated First Amendment protections by keeping social distancing rules for religious services but not for secular businesses.

“The flat prohibition against 10 or more persons gathering for an in-person worship service — regardless of whether they maintain social distancing guidelines — impermissibly treats religious and nonreligious organizations unequally,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who heads the department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote in a letter to the governor.

Mr. Sisolak, a Democrat, earlier this month allowed restaurants and retail stores to reopen at 50% capacity while hair and nail salons could reopen without a limitation on the number of customers.

Nevada’s casinos are also scheduled to reopen on June 4 without limits.
Religious gatherings of 10 or more people remain banned under the reopening plan.

That unequal treatment violates worshipers’ rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion, said Mr. Dreiband.

The Justice Department urged Mr. Sisolak to amend his reopening directive to address the “unequal treatment of places of worship.”

In March, Mr. Sisolak banned in-person worship of 10 or more people and prohibited drive-in religious services to reduce the spread of the deadly coronavirus. He later relented on drive-in services.

The letter is the latest threat issued by the Justice Department to states where religious services have been restricted by governors to control the virus’ spread.

President Trump over the weekend deemed houses of worship “essential” and called on governors to allow them to reopen. He also threatened to “override” governors who defied his order.

Attorney General William P. Barr said earlier this year that government officials cannot discriminate against religious institutions when issuing coronavirus restrictions. He ordered U.S. Attorneys to take legal action against local governments whose coronavirus prevention measures interfere with religious liberty.

The Justice Department last week sent a similar letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, warning that his reopening plan discriminates against churches.

Under Mr. Newsom’s plan, churches can reopen in the third phase of his four-part plan. But Mr. Drieband and his team said that shows an “unequal treatment of faith communities” because they cannot gather in person while secular businesses can reopen earlier.

The Justice Department also filed legal motions supporting churches in Virginia and Mississippi that challenged local directives they say unfairly targeted their services.

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