Court halts ban on mass gatherings at Kentucky churches

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FILE – In this Sunday, May 3, 2020, file photo, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks during a news conference at the state’s Emergency Operations Center at the Boone National Guard Center in Frankfort, Ky., about the coronavirus pandemic. On Friday, May 8, 2020, a federal court halted Beshear’s temporary ban on mass gatherings from applying to in-person religious services, clearing the way for Sunday church services. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — 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.

Beshear acknowledged the court order at a Saturday news conference, saying that his safety guidelines for places of worship would now go into effect immediately. He urged churches to follow the requirements if they choose to hold services or postpone gatherings if they cannot.

“What I’d ask is that people take your time,” he said. “You don’t want your house of worship to be a place where the coronavirus is spread.”

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.

A three-judge federal appeal court panel had last week cleared the way for Maryville Baptist Church to hold drive-in worship services while adhering to public health requirements, an alternative that Beshear has strongly encouraged throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But that panel had stopped short of applying its order to in-person worship services.

Maryville had defied Beshear’s order for houses of worship to not hold in-person services amid the COVID-19 outbreak. At least 50 people attended its Easter service at the church, and the church has held other services since. In response, the governor said Kentucky State Police troopers would record license plates and place notices on vehicles telling Easter service attendees they would have to self-quarantine.

Maryville had turned to the appeals court after Hale had initially refused to stop Beshear’s order from applying to religious services, saying it bans all mass gatherings and thus does not discriminate against religion.

In his order Friday, Hale said the governor failed to prove there was no less restrictive alternative to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and failed to address the appeals court’s suggestion to limit the number of people who could attend services. He said that the burden of proof was on the governor and Maryville Baptist Church “would likely succeed on the merits of their claim under the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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