Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, No. 20-16169 (9th Cir. 2020)Annotate this Case
Calvary Chapel challenges Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak's Directive 021, which prohibits certain gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Specifically, Calvary Chapel challenges section 11 of the Directive, which imposes a fifty-person cap on indoor in-person services at houses of worship.
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of the church's request for a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the Directive against houses of worship. The panel held that the Supreme Court's recent decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, --- S. Ct. ----, 2020 WL 6948354 (2020) (per curiam), arguably represented a seismic shift in Free Exercise law, and compels the result in this case. Similar to the pandemic-related restrictions in Roman Catholic Diocese, the panel explained that the Directive treats numerous secular activities and entities significantly better than religious worship services. The panel explained that the Directive, although not identical to New York's, requires attendance limitations that create the same "disparate treatment" of religion. Because disparate treatment of religion triggers strict scrutiny review, the panel reviewed the restrictions in the Directive under strict scrutiny. Exercising its discretion, the panel concluded that, although slowing the spread of COVID-19 is a compelling interest, the Directive is not narrowly tailored to serve that interest. In this case, the Directive—although less restrictive in some respects than the New York regulations reviewed in Roman Catholic Diocese—is not narrowly tailored because, for example, "maximum attendance at a religious service could be tied to the size of the [house of worship]."
Therefore, Calvary Chapel has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of its Free Exercise claim. Calvary Chapel has also established that the occupancy limitations contained in the Directive—if enforced—will cause irreparable harm, and that the issuance of an injunction is in the public interest. The panel reversed the district court, instructed the district court to employ strict scrutiny review to its analysis of the Directive, and preliminarily enjoined the State from imposing attendance limitations on in-person services in houses of worship that are less favorable than 25% of the fire-code capacity.