Two federal courts blocked Democrat Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s ban on “any in-person religious service” during the Chinese coronavirus crisis.
In two separate cases, federal courts ruled houses of worship must not be treated differently from secular gatherings or activities during the pandemic.
On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted, in a 3-0 opinion, an injunction for in-person religious services to take place Sunday, May 10, in the case of a Maryville Baptist Church.
Last week, the court granted an injunction for parking lot church services, but directed the lower district court to address the issue of in-person faith services.
In the case of Tabernacle Baptist Church of Nicholasville, Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Kentucky, a George W. Bush nominee, then ruled churches in Kentucky may open during the coronavirus crisis as long as they practice social distancing and the hygiene guidelines as prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Tatenhove wrote his ruling applies statewide and that in-person church services are “essential.” He noted that while Beshear has some authority during public health emergencies, “constitutional rights still exist”:
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.
In its ruling Friday, the Court of Appeals wrote:
The Governor has offered no good reason for refusing to trust the congregants who promise to use care in worship in just the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and laundromat workers to do the same. Come to think of it, aren’t the two groups of people often the same people – going to work on one day and going to church on another? How can the same person be trusted to comply with social distancing and other health guidelines in secular settings but not be trusted to do the same in religious settings? The distinction defies explanation, or at least the Governor has not provided one.
The court also emphasized church members are not asking to be excused from social hygiene practices during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, they are asking for treatment equal to those businesses and services Beshear and his administration have deemed essential to remain open:
[W]hy is it safe to wait in a car for a liquor store to open but dangerous to wait in a car to hear morning prayers? Why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew? And why can someone safely interact with a brave deliverywoman but not with a stoic minister? The Commonwealth has no good answers. While the law may take periodic naps during a pandemic, we will not let it sleep through one.
Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, which represented Maryville Baptist Church, said the injunctions send “a loud message that Gov. Andy Beshear may no longer discriminate against churches for religious gatherings – whether those gatherings be in-person or in the parking lot.”
“At a minimum, the First Amendment requires that government cannot single out religious worship and churches for disfavored treatment,” he added. “The Constitution does not have a pause button during a crisis and it will not sleep through a pandemic.”
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron joined the lawsuit brought by Tabernacle Baptist Church:
“I encourage all houses of worship to prayerfully and carefully consider when it is the right time to resume in-person services consistent with health guidelines,” Cameron said following the rulings. “Although these rulings protect the religious liberty of Kentuckians, we must continue to do our part to protect the health of our fellow citizens by reopening carefully.”