A federal judge has sided with a group of Kentucky pastors halting Gov. Beshear's COVID-19 order preventing mass gatherings of ten or more at church services, saying it violates the First Amendment.
A federal court halted the Kentucky governor’s temporary ban on mass gatherings from applying to in-person religious services, clearing the way for Sunday church services.
U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove on Friday issued a temporary restraining order enjoining Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration from enforcing the ban on mass gatherings at “any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines.”
The ruling from the Eastern District of Kentucky sided with the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville, but applies to all places of worship around the commonwealth. Two other federal judges, including U.S. District Judge David Hale, had previously ruled the ban was constitutional. But also on Friday, Hale, of Kentucky’s western district, granted Maryville Baptist Church an injunction allowing in-person services at that specific church, provided it abide by public health requirements.
Exceptions to the Democratic governor’s shutdown order include trips to the grocery store, bank, pharmacy and hardware store. Beshear had previously announced that places of worship in Kentucky will be able to once again hold in-person services starting May 20, as part of a broader plan to gradually reopen the state’s economy. Earlier Friday, he outlined requirements for places of worship to reopen, including limiting attendance at in-person services to 33% of building occupancy capacity and maintaining 6 feet (2 meters) of distance between household units.
The federal judge’s order in the Tabernacle Baptist Church case said Beshear had “an honest motive” in wanting to safeguard Kentuckians’ health and lives, but didn’t provide “a compelling reason for using his authority to limit a citizen’s right to freely exercise something we value greatly — the right of every American to follow their conscience on matters related to religion.”
Tabernacle had broadcast services on Facebook and held drive-in services, but the substitutes offered “cold comfort,” according to the opinion. The opinion went on to say that Tabernacle alleged irreparable injury and was likely to succeed on the merits of its federal constitutional claim, as the defendants didn’t “dispute the challenged orders place a burden on the free exercise of religion 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,” Van Tatenhove’s opinion read. “But that is not our tradition. Its enduring quality requires that it be respected even when it is hard.”
His opinion says Kentucky’s attorney general urged the court to apply the injunction statewide, and since the executive order challenged didn’t solely apply to Tabernacle, the injunction granted would also have a similar scope.
“Both rulings affirm that the law prohibits the government from treating houses of worship differently than secular activities during this pandemic,” Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican, said in a statement late Friday.
The "If you can go to the grocery store, you can go to church" argument is now in effect in Kentucky, and what better gift to Mom this Mother's Day than a good ol' heaping helping of COVID-19 at services today, right?
It's a moot point, really, Beshear was going to reopen churches in two weeks anyway, this just advances the date to this weekend. The greater point is when Beshear issues the next round of closures -- and I guarantee you that is coming soon -- churches will remain open, and people will meet God in more ways than one.