Two federal judges issued rulings Friday in favor of Kentucky churches that want to hold in-person worship services, and a third court issued a similar ruling on Saturday.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove granted a temporary restraining order Friday, preventing Gov. Andy Beshear from “enforcing the prohibition on mass gatherings with respect to any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines.”
Van Tatenhove’s ruling will allow Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville, which filed the lawsuit against the governor, to meet in person, and it also applies to any other Kentucky congregation that follows the guidelines.
“Tabernacle Baptist Church wants to gather for corporate worship. They want to freely exercise their deeply held religious belief about what it means to be a faithful Christian. For them, it is ‘essential’ that they do so. And they want to invoke the Constitution’s protection on this point,” Van Tatenhove wrote in his opinion and order. “But the governor, by executive order, has put a stop to that. He can do that, but he must have 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. … Despite an honest motive, it does not appear at this preliminary stage that reason exists.”
Tabernacle filed the lawsuit in federal court in Frankfort.
According to the order, Tabernacle has been holding drive-in and online worship services, but the congregation has a “sincerely held religious belief” that those forms of worship “do not meet the Lord’s requirement that the church meet together in person for corporate worship.”
The church has said it will follow social distancing guidelines and the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for mass gatherings for in-person services, the order says.
“There is ample scientific evidence that COVID-19 is exceptionally contagious. But evidence that the risk of contagion is heightened in a religious setting any more than a secular one is lacking,” Van Tatenhove wrote. “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.”
In the second ruling, U.S. District Judge David Hale granted an injunction allowing Maryville Baptist Church in Louisville to hold in-person worship services “so long as the church, its ministers, and its congregants adhere to public health requirements set by state officials.”
Hale had previously declined to grant the church’s request for a ruling allowing in-person services.
Attorneys for Beshear had argued that exempting churches from the ban on mass gatherings would thwart the effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, but Hale said in his order Friday that the governor had failed to show “that there was no other, less restrictive, way to achieve the same goals.”
And on Saturday, three judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati granted Maryville an injunction pending appeal, which also allows in-person services at the church. The order said that three congregants wanted to meet for in-person worship on Sunday.
The same panel — Senior Judge David McKeague, Judge Jeffrey Sutton and Judge John Nalbandian — issued an order last weekend stating that state must allow the church’s drive-in services.
Beshear’s administration has said that churches may resume meeting in person beginning May 20 and on Friday released a list of requirements they should follow as they reopen.
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