The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance. But the Governor of Nevada apparently has different priorities. Claiming virtually unbounded power to restrict constitutional rights during the COVID–19 pandemic, he has issued a directive that severely limits attendance at religious services. A church, synagogue, or mosque, regardless of its size, may not admit more than 50 persons, but casinos and certain other favored facilities may admit 50% of their maximum occupancy—and in the case of gigantic Las Vegas casinos, this means that thousands of patrons are allowed.
That Nevada would discriminate in favor of the powerful gaming industry and its employees may not come as a surprise, but this Court’s willingness to allow such discrimination is disappointing. We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility.
…I would grant an injunction pending appeal. Calvary Chapel is very likely to succeed on its claim that the directive’s discriminatory treatment of houses of worship violates the First Amendment. In addition, unconstitutionally preventing attendance at worship services inflicts irreparable harm on Calvary Chapel and its congregants, and the State has made no effort to show that conducting services in accordance with Calvary Chapel’s plan would pose any greater risk to public health than many other activities that the directive allows, such as going to the gym. The State
certainly has not shown that church attendance under Calvary Chapel’s plan is riskier than what goes on in casinos.
For months now, States and their subdivisions have responded to the pandemic by imposing unprecedented restrictions on personal liberty, including the free exercise of religion. This initial response was understandable. In times of crisis, public officials must respond quickly and decisively to evolving and uncertain situations. At the dawn of an emergency—and the opening days of the COVID–19 outbreak plainly qualify—public officials may not be able to craft precisely tailored rules. Time, information, and expertise may be in short supply, and those responsible for enforcement may lack the resources needed to administer rules that draw fine distinctions. Thus, at the outset of an emergency, it may be appropriate for courts to tolerate very blunt rules. In general, that is what has happened thus far during the COVID–19 pandemic.
But a public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists. As more medical and scientific evidence becomes available, and as States have time to craft policies in light of that evidence, courts should expect policies that more carefully account for constitutional rights. Governor Sisolak issued the directive in question on May 28, more than two months after declaring a state of emergency on March 12. Now four months have passed since the original declaration. The
problem is no longer one of exigency, but one of considered yet discriminatory treatment of places of worship.
…For Las Vegas casinos, 50% capacity often means thousands of patrons, and the activities that occur in casinos frequently involve far less physical distancing and other safety measures than the worship services that Calvary Chapel proposes to conduct. Patrons at a craps or blackjack table do not customarily stay six feet apart. Casinos are permitted to serve alcohol, which is well known to induce risk taking, and drinking generally requires at least the temporary removal of masks. Casinos attract patrons from all over the country. In anticipation of reopening, one casino owner gave away 2,000 one-way airline tickets to Las Vegas. ECF Doc. 38–9, p. 4. And when the Governor announced that casinos would be permitted to reopen, he invited visitors to come to the State. The average visitor to Las Vegas visits more than six different casinos, potentially gathering with far more than 50 persons in each one. ECF Doc. 38–6, p. 44. Visitors to Las Vegas who gamble do so for more than two hours per day on average, id., at 43, and gamblers in a casino often move from one spot to another, trying their luck at different games or at least at different
Houses of worship can—and have—adopted rules that provide far more protection. Family groups can be given places in the pews that are more than six feet away from others. Worshippers can be required to wear masks throughout the service or for all but a very brief time. Worshippers do not customarily travel from distant spots to attend a particular church; nor do they generally hop from church to church to sample different services on any given Sunday. Few worship services last two hours. (Calvary Chapel now limits its services to 45 minutes.) And worshippers do not generally mill around the church while a service is in progress.
The idea that allowing Calvary Chapel to admit 90 worshippers presents a greater public health risk than allowing casinos to operate at 50% capacity is hard to swallow, and the State’s efforts to justify the discrimination are feeble. It notes that patrons at gaming tables are supposed to wear masks and that the service of food at casinos is now limited, but congregants in houses of worship are also required to wear masks, and they do not consume meals during services.
…In sum, the directive blatantly discriminates against houses of worship and thus warrants strict scrutiny under
the Free Exercise Clause. [Justice Alito]
This is a simple case. Under the Governor’s edict, a 10-screen “multiplex” may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps six people huddled at each craps table here and a similar number gathered around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting more than 50 worshippers—no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear face masks, no matter the precautions at all. In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel. [Justice Gorsuch]
With respect to those tradeoffs, however, no precedent suggests that a State may discriminate against religion simply because a religious organization does not generate the economic benefits that a restaurant, bar, casino, or gym might provide. Nevada’s rules reflect an implicit judgment that for-profit assemblies are important and religious gatherings are less so; that moneymaking is more important than faith during the pandemic. But that rationale “devalues religious reasons” for congregating “by judging them to be of lesser import than nonreligious reasons,” in violation of the Constitution. Lukumi, 508 U. S., at 537–538. The Constitution does not tolerate discrimination against religion merely because religious services do not yield a profit.
…The Constitution “protects religious observers against unequal treatment.” Trinity Lutheran, 582 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 6) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). Nevada’s 50-person attendance cap on religious worship services puts praying at churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques on worse footing than eating at restaurants, drinking at bars, gambling at casinos, or biking at gyms. In other words, Nevada is discriminating against religion. And because the State has not offered a sufficient justification for doing so, that discrimination violates the First Amendment. I would grant the Church’s application for a temporary injunction. I respectfully dissent. [Justice Cavanaugh]
Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Cavanaugh, CALVARY CHAPEL DAYTON VALLEY v. STEVE SISOLAK, GOVERNOR OF NEVADA, ET AL. July 24, 2020