Our Letter To Governor Sisolak

May 14, 2020
The Honorable Steven F. Sisolak Governor
State of Nevada State Capitol Building
101 N. Carson Street
Carson City, NV 89701

Re: Request To Immediately Lift The Ban On In-Person Worship Services Where Ten Or More Persons May Gather So Long As Each Church Develops, Implements, And Maintains A Safety Plan That Adheres To Applicable Social Distancing And Hygiene Guidelines.

Dear Governor Sisolak:

This correspondence is a collaborative communication signed by over 190 Pastors and Ministry leaders from many different Christian denominations and expressions of the Christian faith, representing racially, socioeconomically, and politically diverse congregations, large and small, residing in communities across the State of Nevada. Each one of the undersigned pray for you, your wife, and your administration daily. We know your job is difficult under the best of circumstances, but in the face of a global pandemic we empathize with you as the weight of the decisions you have had to make must feel impossibly difficult. Nevertheless, we thank God that he has given you strength, wisdom, and conviction to make decisions that have prevented widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in Nevada and mitigated the number of deaths related thereto. We also applaud your efforts to support health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have heroically served our communities during this unprecedented time.

Just like you, we care deeply for the people of the State of Nevada. During this time of crisis, our houses of worship and the people we serve have adapted to the pandemic and taken safety precautions related thereto. We have restricted our in-person services and done our best to utilize virtual platforms to serve our congregations and our communities.

That being said, we have been gravely concerned that the actions you have taken appear to have targeted religious gatherings. For example, the, “DECLARATION OF EMERGENCY DIRECTIVE 013” issued by your office on April 8, 2020, is one of the most restrictive orders in the United States. Section 4 states:

Places of worship shall not hold in-person worship services where ten or more persons may gather, including without limitation, drive-in and pop-up services, for the remainder of the Declaration of Emergency. Places of worship may, however, hold worship services via alternative means, including but not limited to, video, streaming, or broadcast, provided that any personnel needed to perform tasks related to such alternatives do so in a manner that is consistent with social distancing guidelines promulgated by the Nevada Health Response, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and all Directives promulgated pursuant to the March 12, 2020 Declaration of Emergency, including without limitation, the prohibition on gatherings of ten or more persons and maintaining minimum separation distances of at least six feet between persons.

See http://gov.nv.gov/News/Emergency_Orders/2020/2020-04-08_COVID- 19_Declaration_of_Emergency_Directive_013/ (emphasis supplied).

Additionally, the order also provided enforcement provisions stating, “Government agencies may use all existing civil and criminal statutes, ordinances, codes, and regulations to enforce the provisions of this Directive.” See Section 11, supra.

We trust that you had good intentions when you issued this order. We understand that it was your express purpose to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. However, the order went too far, especially when there are other policies and practices available that are not as restrictive. We respectfully submit that the restrictions on in-person church services are more burdensome than they need to be in order to accomplish our shared goal of preventing the spread of COVID-19. Emergency Directive 013 restricts religious gatherings in a way that is overbroad and not narrowly tailored to accomplish our shared goal of preventing the spread of disease and death. As one federal court explained last Friday when it struck down a similar order in Kentucky:

The Constitution will endure. It would be easy to put it on the shelf in times like this, to be pulled down and dusted off when more convenient. But that is not our tradition. Its enduring quality requires that it be respected even when it is hard.

Tabernacle Baptist Church, Inc. of Nicholasville, Kentucky v. Beshear et al, Case No. 3:20-cv- 00033-GFVT, Doc #: 24 (E.D.KY May 8, 2020).

Here in Nevada, there is no evidence that houses of worship have in any way contributed to the spread of COVID-19. In fact, most houses of worship have closely followed government orders, prepared comprehensive safety plans, and otherwise complied with all the social distancing guidelines. Prohibiting in-person church services is not necessary given the reasonable steps we have all taken to protect our congregations and the communities we serve. While we understand your concern for the health and safety of people in our state, we simply ask that 2you understand that we share your concern and that you can trust us to lead and protect our faith communities as we minister to people in need of our care and comfort.

If a person can safely take their car to a fast food drive through, congregate at a Costco, assemble in mass at a supermarket parking lot, or go to work at a professional office, construction site, or distribution warehouse with appropriate PPE and comply with other CDC social distancing guidelines, then houses of worship should be permitted to do the same. There is nothing that makes a manager of a supermarket, foreman on a job site, or office manager, wiser or more capable than any of us to provide for the safety of those we have been called to serve.

The “Phase One” order that has begun the process of reopening of Nevada did not lift the restrictions on houses of worship to have in-person services of more than 10 people. However, restaurants have been permitted to re-open for in-person dining (take-away and delivery still preferred; 50% seating capacity; reservations required; six feet apart; bar tops closed; waiting patrons must wait outside to be seated; masks for employees). Bars that serve food have been permitted to open. Barber shops, salons, and nail shops have been permitted to reopen to the public (partitions preferred or 6ft rule; appointments only; masks required). Retail businesses have been given the green light to resume business (no more than 50% of allowed occupancy inside at any time — includes big box stores). Car Dealerships have been allowed to reopen to the public to sell cars (appointment only, test drive okay without dealership rep; 50% occupancy). Finally, Cannabis dispensaries can resume indoor sales once approved by State regulators.

The distinctions being made in the Phase One reopening plan appear to us to be arbitrary. There is no longer a distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” business. Instead, it appears the determinations being made about who can reopen and host gatherings of more than 10 people and who cannot host such gatherings are ad hoc and inconsistent. The distinctions being made between a salon and a gym or a big box store/restaurant and a church don’t appear to have a coherent rationale. Concluding that a restaurant with a capacity of 100 can open to 50 people at a time as long as they practice social distancing, utilize PPE, and follow other health and safety guidelines, but houses of worship cannot do the same does not make sense to any of us or the people we serve in our congregations and communities.

What you and many others may not fully appreciate about many of us and our houses of worship is that, although the notion that a building does not define who we are as people of faith is true, the gathering of the ekklesia (which is the New Testament Term for “Assembly” or “Called out”) is central to the Christian faith. The virtual gatherings we have been forced to settle for during this time of crisis, while necessary for the physical health and safety of people in our community, are not an acceptable substitute for the communal gathering of the Church. The gathering of the ekklesia is more than just a motivational speech from a gifted orator, a deep teaching from a skilled teacher, or the warm feeling we get when we sing worship songs together. For Christians, the assembly of saints is the embodiment of Christ on Earth. This is how we best express His image and likeness on earth. It cannot be done well alone or via video 3conference. We believe we are not called to be isolated individuals expressing Christ in the privacy of our homes, but a collective city on the hill where Christ is expressed together to one another. There are over 100 New Testament scriptures addressing our commitments to one another in the context of our assembly So, while we are eager to do what is safe and right for our community, we cannot settle for the notion that what we are doing “virtually” is a substitute for the gathering of the ekklesia. In this regard, it is our sincerely-held religious belief that online services and drive-in services do not meet the Lord’s requirement that the church meet together in person for corporate worship. For this reason, your order violates our First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of assembly.

In addition to the central role of community gatherings for Christians, churches and ministries have been and continue to be valuable contributors to the good of communities especially during those times in history when society has faced a major health crisis. During the periods when the Roman Empire was besieged by plague, Christian churches were indispensable to civilization. For example, during the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which is reported to have caused the deaths of nearly 25% of the Roman Empire, Christians cared for the sick and offered mental and spiritual comfort.1 Likewise, in the 1500s, when the bubonic plague hit Wittenberg, Martin Luther is reported to have refused calls to flee the city and protect himself. Rather, he and others stayed and ministered to the sick. According to Luther, the appropriate response for a person of faith to an epidemic was: “We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.”

Today, this commitment to our solemn duty of love and service in time of crisis simply means that houses of worship must continue to care for their congregations and the communities they serve. This service takes many forms, including responsibly hosting regular services and providing ceremonies and sacraments for spiritual care and comfort, providing assistance to the poor, to immigrants (documented and undocumented), and to families in need, caring for the elderly, ministering to the mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of first responders and health care providers, providing guidance to unemployed people as they manage the anxieties and stresses of being jobless, helping raise money for PPE, medical equipment, and supplies that health care professionals need, partnering with government leaders to develop strategies for preventing the spread of disease and death. The foregoing services that houses of worship provide are “essential” to the people and communities they serve and should not be restricted by a government order.

We don’t assume you have approved such restrictive orders regarding church gatherings with a specific animus toward our churches and our vital role in society, but your orders have sent an unfortunate message to us and the people of the State of Nevada that churches and church leaders can’t be trusted to take the steps necessary to protect our congregations and the communities we serve when we are engaged in the work of ministry in our communities.

Although we acknowledge there have been bad actors in the community of faith who have not taken their duty to prevent the spread of disease and death, the response to these bad actors should not be to shut down all communities of faith and the essential work we do. Indeed, we know that COVID-19 has resulted in sickness and death on the Raiders Stadium project as a result of a failure to adhere to appropriate social distancing guidelines, but you have not issued an order limiting construction operations in the state. So, your order regarding houses of worship seems especially heavy handed when compared to how other essential businesses in various industries have been given deference to manage their operations. In this regard, United States Attorney General Barr recently opined in his April 14, 2020, Statement on Religious Practice and Social Distancing that, “… government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity.” See https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-william-p-barr-issues-statement-religiouspractice-and-social-distancing-0

Church leaders take the safety and security of their congregations and communities as seriously as any other leaders. Here is a link to an exhaustive handbook for churches prepared by one church leader that demonstrates just how much thought and care most faith leaders put into keeping their congregations and communities safe: https://docs.google.com/document/d/13bKFzl1PvObLlRXTx9pIPMOyBWiGkKhHdXu_iWXUqjM/ Like this author, many faith leaders consider their actions in service to one another as an important part of our expression of faith, not just a mere legal duty.

Therefore, in accordance with the foregoing, we respectfully submit that our churches should not be singled out and treated as if we are not essential to the health and wellbeing of the people we serve in this great State and cannot otherwise be trusted to act responsibly to protect the people under our care. As one commentator put it, “[t]he coronavirus leaves over 95 percent of its victims still breathing. But it leaves virtually every member of society afraid, anxious, isolated, alone, and wondering if anyone would even notice if they’re gone. In an increasingly atomized society, the coronavirus could rapidly mutate into an epidemic of despair. Church attendance serves as a societal roll call, especially for older people: Those who don’t show up should be checked on during the week. Bereft of work, school, public gatherings, sports and hobbies, or even the outside world at all, humans do poorly. We need the moral and mental support of communities to be the decent people we all aspire to be.” See, Stone, Ibid.

During this crisis, we are sincere in our desire to sacrifice for others. We understand the need to fastidiously maintain a social distancing and the CDC hygienic routine that prevents the spread of COVID-19. Our churches are essential to preserving meaningful human community where people can receive care for their mind and soul, while at the same time receiving other services they provide. Our churches have faithfully shepherded communities through countless plagues over two millennia. There is no reason to believe that our collective wisdom and experience does not have relevance during this pandemic. Our houses of worship are indeed 56 “essential” and our faith leaders trustworthy in their collective efforts to prevent the spread of the virus, save lives, and care for the needs of people who have had their lives turned upside down by COVID-19 and the government policies related thereto.

In closing, we submit this correspondence as one united voice of diverse churches and ministry leaders from multiple denominations and expressions of the Christian faith throughout the State of Nevada to hereby request that you immediately lift the ban on inperson worship services where ten or more persons may gather so long as each church develops, implements, and maintains a safety plan that adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines. The plans each house of worship will adopt will be informed by the, “Interim Guidance for Administrators and Leaders of Community- and FaithBased Organizations to Plan, Prepare, and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)2” and incorporate the relevant safety requirements you have placed on restaurants, bars that serve food, barber shops, salons, nail shops, retail businesses, supermarkets, professional offices, and other businesses where gathering of more than ten people are permitted.

Thank you for your time and attention to this request.

Very truly your faithful friends and partners in service to the people of the State of Nevada,