Federal judge: Gov. Beshear can't halt in-person learning at Kentucky religious schools due to COVID-19

Posted at 9:21 PM, Nov 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-25 21:21:13-05

A federal judge has ruled that Gov. Andy Beshear cannot close religious schools to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

In a Wednesday night ruling, U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove granted the request for a preliminary injunction in a 22-page order. Attorney General Daniel Cameron joined Danville Christian Academy in supporting the suit.

The lawsuit was supported by more than one dozen religious schools and over 1,000 Kentucky parents.

This comes as Gov. Beshear signed an executive order last Wednesday that would limit private gatherings to 8 people, limit attendance at venue spaces, and close indoor service at bars and restaurants. The order is in effect from Nov. 20 through Dec. 13.

"The Governor has every right to impose some restrictions on all schools, religious and secular alike," said Van Tatenhove in his ruling. "Social distancing, face masks, limits on class size, reporting requirements, and other protocols may cost money and may be inconvenient for parents and students, but we give executives increased discretion in times of crisis. But in an effort to do the right thing to fight the virus, the Governor cannot do the wrong thing by infringing protected values."

On November 23rd, a hearing was held in federal court. Lawyers from the Attorney General's Office and Danville Christian Academy argued that the governor's order violates the First Amendment and the Commonwealth’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.

"Gov. Beshear’s order violates the law, oversteps the constitution," said Roger Byron, one of the lawyers representing Danville Christian Academy.

The Attorney General's Office argued that religious schools are owed the same first amendment protections other religious institutions are given.

"We believe that the first amendment protections given to churches, and to synagogues, and to mosques are no different than the first amendment protections given to religious schools throughout Kentucky," said deputy attorney general Barry Dunn.

Gov. Beshear's general counsel argued that Danville Christian Academy is asking for special rights during a public health crisis.

"No one is trying to infringe upon religious belief. We are treating all schools neutrally," said Amy Cubbage, the governor's general counsel. "What the plaintiffs are asking for is special rights. All schools should be treated the same."

Van Tatenhove said the schools were "likely to succeed on the merits of the case."

Attorney General Cameron responded to the ruling by issuing the following statement:

"On the day before Thanksgiving, I am incredibly thankful for the timeless and enduring protections enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. More than 200 years ago, our founders answered the question presented to the court in this case by protecting the free exercise of religion, and today, the court firmly upheld that guarantee by recognizing that Kentuckians have a right to worship and express their faith through a religious education.

"The court prohibited the Governor from enforcing his executive order and unequivocally stated that the Commonwealth’s religious schools can resume in-person learning. This is not the first time during this pandemic where religious exercise has been threatened, first with the prohibition on drive-in church services, then in-person worship services, and now in-person instruction at religious schools.

"In each of these instances, the courts have affirmed that the freedoms provided by our Constitution are stronger than the fears of the moment and cannot be cast aside by the Governor or any leader. Our country was built on the idea of religious freedom and will always be a place of refuge for those of faith. This pandemic reminds us now, more than ever, of the importance of faith and the reassurance and stability it provides for many in the midst of challenging times."

Governor Beshear's team says they are appealing the ruling and requesting an emergency stay of the judge's order.

"We are disappointed but not surprised that Judge Van Tatenhove, for the second time, has refused to acknowledge the U.S. Supreme Court decision that found an action like this is both legal and constitutional," said Crystal Staley, Communications Director for Governor Beshear. "We have already appealed to the Sixth Circuit and will request an emergency stay of the judge's order, and, if necessary, will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Let's be clear: lives are on the line and everyone must do their part to defeat the virus."