Breaking: Judge Grants Restraining Order Against Kentucky Governor in Dispute Over In-Person Religious Gatherings

Governor’s order unlawfully limits church services in violation of the First Amendment

Nicholasville, KY—U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove has granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) preventing Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear from enforcing his order that prohibits in-person church services and threatens criminal penalties. The motion for the TRO was filed Wednesday in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky by First Liberty Institute, WilmerHale, and Bilby Law PLLC on behalf of Tabernacle Baptist Church of Nicholasville. The judge’s decision allows “mass gatherings with respect to any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines.”

You can read the judge’s order here.

“Judge Van Tatenhove recognized that Governor Beshear’s order unlawfully prohibits religious worship and violates the First Amendment,” said Roger Byron, Senior Counsel at First Liberty. “The church will gather together for worship on Sunday with grateful hearts and observe the CDC’s guidelines to keep everyone safe and well.”

“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, partner at WilmerHale. “The Governor’s order does just that, and that is a textbook violation of the free exercise of religion.”

The court’s order stated that “the prohibition on religious services presently operating in the Commonwealth is ‘beyond what was reasonably required for the safety of the public.’” “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.” The judge added, “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. But that is not our tradition. Its enduring quality requires that it be respected even when it is hard.”

Churches like Tabernacle Baptist stopped holding in-person religious services after a March 19, 2020 order by Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services, a branch of Governor Beshear’s administration, that prohibited church gatherings on threat of criminal penalty. Since March 22, Tabernacle Baptist and its congregants have been unable to gather for religious worship in their sanctuary for fear of criminal prosecution despite their willingness to abide by social distancing precautions. Attorneys for Tabernacle Baptist argued that this limitation unfairly burdens their free exercise of religion.

On March 25, Governor Beshear issued Executive Order 2020-257, and asserted religious organizations are not “life-sustaining” organizations, except when they function as charities by providing “food, shelter, and social services.” But while restricting churches the Governor permits people to congregate indoors in a variety of other contexts, from big-box stores, to grocery stores, to laundromats, to liquor stores, so long as they do so consistent with social distancing practices.

To address the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, Tabernacle Baptist is committed to physically gathering in a manner consistent with social distancing guidelines issued by the CDC and Governor Beshear’s March 25 order.

First Liberty’s team of legal experts continues to remain vigilant on the front lines of this crucial fight to ensure that our rights to religious freedom are not compromised.

As attacks against churches and churchgoers continue to take place all across our nation during the “new normal,” we believe the work we are doing is vital for our freedoms and the future of our country. And it is only through your support that we able stand ready to defend your right to live out your faith.

Will You Help First Liberty Continue Defend Religious Freedom Against Policies That Target In-Person Church Services?

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