For the second time, a federal judge has issued a restraining order against Kentucky officials who moved to block church services during the coronavirus shutdown.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled Friday night in favor of Tabernacle Baptist Church of Nicholasville and against Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s order that threatened criminal penalties for violations of a prohibition on in-person church services.
Last month, a federal judge issued a similar order for a church in the Louisville area. These cases and others in Mississippi, New York, and Washington state have highlighted the clash between secular and ecclesiastical authorities in states that have tried to shutdown activity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Attorney General William Barr has sided with religious freedom advocates, saying the Justice Department would cast a jaundiced eye on efforts to curtail worship.
“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,” Mr. Van Tatenhove wrote. “The Constitution will endure. It would be easy to put it on a 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.”
Attorneys for the church welcomed the decision.
“Judge Van Tatenhove recognized that Governor Beshear’s order unlawfully prohibit religious worship and violates the First Amendment,” said Roger Byron, senior counsel with First Liberty, a religious non-profit that represented the church along with attorneys at WilmerHale.
“The state cannot forbid people to assemble in a room for a religious reason but allow them to assemble in a room for a secular reason,” said Matthew Martens, a partner at WilmerHale. “The governor’s order does just that, and that is a textbook violation of the free exercise of religion.”
The church will continue to abide by social distancing guidelines and take strict sanitization steps after each service, the attorneys said.
The ruling came hours after a federal court hearing in Washington at which state officials dropped their opposition to a one-on-one Bible study class. Joshua Freed, a Republican candidate for governor this November, had filed motions arguing a ban on his proposal to move his Bible study session outdoors and involve just two people practicing social distancing was an improper infringement on his First Amendment rights.
Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s shelter-in-place rules that were extended to religious gatherings were too extreme, according to Mr. Freed’s lawyers.
“The governor conceded that Mr. Freed can have a one-on-one Bible study and that he will not enforce the rules against home Bible studies on a one-on-one basis,” said Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel at First Liberty. “The governor’s attorneys, during the proceeding, made various statements that indicate the governor may not take any steps to enforce any shut down orders that affect religious activities even beyond the Bible study at issue.”