Kentucky churches won the right to meet in-person during the coronavirus pandemic after three federal courts in two days ruled against an order by the Kentucky governor.
The March 19 order by Gov. Andy Beshear and state officials bans mass gatherings, including faith-based ones, but carves out multiple exceptions, including ones for factories and grocery stores.
U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove issued a temporary restraining order on Friday preventing Kentucky officials from “enforcing the prohibition on mass gatherings” in churches and faith-based gatherings as long as the groups “adhere to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines.”
“If social distancing is good enough for Home Depot and Kroger, it is good enough for in-person religious services which, unlike the foregoing, benefit from constitutional protection,” wrote Van Tatenhove, who was nominated by President George W. Bush.
The lawsuit was brought by First Liberty Institute and two other law firms on behalf of Tabernacle Baptist Church of Nicholasville, Ky.
“The unexplained breadth of the ban on religious services, together with its haven for numerous secular exceptions, cannot co-exist with a society that places religious freedom in a place of honor in the Bill of Rights: The First Amendment,” Van Tatenhove wrote.
On Saturday, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a similar ruling in a case brought by Liberty Counsel on behalf of Maryville (Ky.) Baptist Church. The court unanimously (3-0) granted an injunction preventing Kentucky officials from enforcing the order as long as churches follow public health requirements.
“Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew?” the Sixth Circuit justices asked, rhetorically. “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.”
The Sixth Circuit noted that Kentucky officials have allowed “life-sustaining” businesses such as “law firms, laundromats, liquor stores, gun shops, airlines, mining operations, funeral homes, and landscaping businesses to continue to operate so long as they follow social-distancing and other health-related precautions.”
“But the orders do not permit soul-sustaining group services of faith organizations, even if the groups adhere to all the public health guidelines required of the other services,” the opinion said.
Beshear “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,” the opinion said.
Two of the judges were nominated by President George W. Bush; the third was nominated by President Trump.
U.S. District Judge David Hale also sided with the churches in a Friday decision.
Beshear, during a weekend press conference, urged churches to “take your time” in reopening, Kentucky.com reported. He previously had said churches could reopen May 20.
“Be careful. Make sure that you do it right,” he said. “Don’t come back just to come back.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Ehrlif
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, The Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.