DISTURBING RELIGIOUS MEETINGS
The First Amendment gives everyone the right to freedom of religion. The Nevada Legislature has therefore created a statute criminalizing the disturbance of a religious meeting to further this inherent right. Convictions disturbing a religious meeting can carry harsh fines and even possible jail time.
What is the legal definition of Disturbing a Religious Meeting?
NRS 201.270 defines Disturbing Religious Meetings.
NRS 201.270 – Disturbing religious meetings; penalty.
Every person who shall willfully disturb, interrupt or disquiet any assemblage or congregation of people met for religious worship:
- By noisy, rude or indecent behavior, profane discourse, either within the place where such meeting is held, or so near it as to disturb the order and solemnity of the meeting;
- By exhibiting shows or plays, or promoting any racing of animals, or gaming of any description, or engaging in any boisterous or noisy amusement;
- By disturbing in any manner, without authority of law within 1 mile thereof, free passage along a highway to the place of such meeting, or by maliciously cutting or otherwise injuring or disturbing a conveyance or other property belonging to any person in attendance upon such meeting; or
- By menacing, threatening or assaulting any person therein,
- Shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
The list of prohibited conduct seems unusual. Do people actually do these things?
There are a lot of different things that someone could do that could easily be considered either disruptive to the gathering or a normal part of worship, depending on the point of view. Consequently, this list was created in an attempt to give prosecutors the option to prosecute someone anytime their actions disturb or disrupt a religious gathering.
For example, the list prohibits:
- Noisy, rude or indecent behavior – “Noisy” behavior is a normal part of many religious ceremonies, but can also be very disruptive if done in a way inappropriate to the congregation or to the religion itself. However, behavior that causes disruption to the gathering, whether because it is noisy, rude, or indecent/inappropriate to the gathering can be charged.
- Profane discourse – Again, there are many times where profane discourse is common within a place of worship; many 12-step programs hold meetings inside churches or other places of worship. However, given that such meetings are not likely to be held during times of worship, they would not be held accountable under NRS 201.270. On the other hand, shouting loud and profane language in the middle of a religious meeting, gathering, or ceremony would likely be very disruptive and could be seen as disrespectful to the worshipers.
- Exhibiting shows or plays near the meeting – Along with noisy or rude behavior, performing a show nearby a religious meeting would be disruptive to the meeting, and would be considered rude and disrespectful.
- Promoting racing or gaming – Here, the issue is likely to be two-fold. In the first place, most religions do not condone gambling, so promoting such gaming or racing within or near a religious meeting would likely be disrespectful in its disregard for the religion’s beliefs. Secondly, racing and gaming tend to cause people to get noisy rowdy. Such behavior would be extremely disruptive to the religious meeting.
- Engaging in boisterous or noisy amusement – Again, such activity would be disruptive and disrespectful to the religious meeting.
- Disturbing free passage along highway within 1 mile of meeting – As noted above, the Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of religion. Consequently, blocking off the highways around a religious meeting would make it impossible for people to practice their religion, thereby infringing on their Constitutional rights.
- Maliciously damaging an automobile or other property belonging to any person in attendance – Although such damage could also be charged as a form of vandalism, prosecutors may choose to include charges under NRS 201.270 because such vandalism could allow the court to consider the crime a “hate crime” based on the victim’s religion.
- Menacing, threatening or assaulting a person in attendance – Similarly, menacing, threatening or assaulting a person attending a religious meeting could be charged under other laws (such as assault or stalking). If the prosecutor can prove that the crime was done because of a hatred toward the religion, then they can request that the court include the “hate crime enhancement.” (which can be seen in greater detail here.)
Is there anything else I should know?
Yes, as you may have noticed, Disturbing a Religious meeting can often be charged in conjunction with other crimes. Some of those crimes include:
- Assault – Assaulting someone at a religious meeting may lead to charges for both, particularly if the assault was committed specifically because of the person’s affiliation with the religion.
- Battery – Much like Assault, Battery may be charged in conjunction with Disturbing a Religious meeting so as to show that the crime was done because of a hatred for the subject religious meeting.
- Trespass – not all religious meetings are held in public places. Consequently, entering into the meeting without authority to do so could lead to trespass charges in addition to disturbing the religious meeting.
- Harassment – In situations where someone is harassing another person, the addition of Disturbing Religious Meetings can be added if that harassment does, in fact, disturb the meeting.
- Breaching the Peace – Breaching the peace is, essentially, the same crime as disturbing a religious meeting in that it involves disturbing other people in an inappropriate manner. Consequently, seeing both crimes charged together is not uncommon.
- Reckless endangerment – If your conduct disturbs and disrupts the religious meeting, but also endangers the safety and well-being of others, whether members of the meeting or not, then you may be charged with reckless endangerment in conjunction with disturbing a religious meeting.
- Vandalism – As already noted above, vandalism of another person’s property while at a religious meeting could lead to being charged with both crimes.
What are the possible penalties?
Disturbing a Religious Meeting is a misdemeanor in Nevada, which carries:
- Up to 6 months in a County jail; and/or
- Possible fines up to $1,000.
Generally speaking, judges are not likely to impose the jail sentence for a first offense. And, if you have no criminal record, it is likely that the case will be dismissed altogether with the payment of a fine and possibly some community service or counseling.
Please Note: If you are charged with one of the above-listed crimes as well as Disturbing a Religious Meeting, then you will be facing possible penalties for both crimes.
Are there any Defenses?
Yes, of course there are. Some of the possible defenses include:
- No Intent – The first point that is made in the statute is that disruption must be willful, or intentional. If you can show that you did not intend to disturb the religious meeting, then the charges against you should be dropped or dismissed.
- Legitimate Purpose – As with the defense of having no intent, if you can show that you had a legitimate purpose for your conduct, then you may be able to get the charges against you dropped. However, given the importance of the First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, you will be required to show a substantially legitimate purpose for your conduct.
- False Allegations/Insufficient Evidence – As with any crime, the prosecution bears the burden of proving every element of the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the you have been wrongly accused out of anger, revenge, or misunderstanding, then it will be more difficult to collect enough relevant evidence. Moreover, an experienced attorney will be able to find out if there is evidence showing that you did not commit the crime you have been accused of. If there is not enough evidence to uphold this high level of proof, then the charges should be dropped or dismissed.
What should I do if I’ve been charged with Disturbing a Religious Meeting?
As with any crime, it is very important that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible so that you can discuss the specific circumstances as well as any defenses that may apply to your case.