Federal Judge Blocks Kentucky Governor's Soon-to-Expire Ban on Religious Services

Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville had objected to the governor’s limits and sought to provide in-person religious services.

A cathedral sits empty during the coronavirus pandemic.
A cathedral sits empty during the coronavirus pandemic. (photo: Shutterstock)

LEXINGTON Ky. — With Kentucky already set for a limited resumption of religious services May 20, a federal judge has said Gov. Andy Beshear may not enforce an expiring ban on large gatherings to bar religious services that adhere to relevant social distancing and hygiene guidelines aimed to limit spread of the novel coronavirus.

U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove of the Eastern District of Kentucky said in a May 8 temporary restraining order that Beshear had “an honest motive” but did not provide a “compelling reason” to limit the free exercise of religion, the Associated Press reports.

The injunction applies statewide. Two other judges had previously said the ban was constitutional.

Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville had objected to the governor’s limits and sought to provide in-person religious services. The church had broadcast services on Facebook and had held drive-in religious services. The judge said these efforts were “cold comfort,” and added the church’s legal case was likely to succeed on its merits. The church said the burdens on its religious practice constituted irreparable injury and the state did not dispute that its orders burdened religious exercise, Van Tatenhove said in his decision.

Beshear, a Democrat, had issued travel limits that exempted trips to the grocery store, bank, pharmacy, and hardware store. He had previously said churches would be allowed to hold in-person services starting May 20, as part of efforts to lift some economic and social restrictions imposed to limit spread of the coronavirus.

The limits for the first church re-openings, also announced Friday, would require churches that reopen to limit attendance to 33% of building capacity, and to maintain six feet of distance between the congregants of each household.

Beshear spoke about the court order at a May 9 press conference. He said that churches that hold services should follow the requirements. If they cannot follow safety requirements, they should postpone services.

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

Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron had supported a statewide injunction against the previous limits on churches. In a May 8 statement, he said the law bars the government from “treating houses of worship differently than secular activities during this pandemic.”

Another Kentucky church, Maryville Baptist Church, had held Easter services despite the ban. At least 50 people attended church there on Easter Sunday, and more services have been held since.

The governor said state police would respond to the Easter service by taking down license plates and leaving notices on vehicles to tell attendees that they would have to self-quarantine.

On May 2 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction against a state order to Maryville Baptist Church. The court said the governor offered no reason to refuse “to trust the congregants who promise to use care in worship in just the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and laundromat workers to do the same.”

U.S. District Judge David Hale initially ruled against the church, saying that the ban on all mass gatherings meant there was no discrimination on the basis of religion.

In his May 8 order, however, he said that the governor had failed to prove there was no less restrictive alternative to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 and failed to address the appeals court suggestion to limit the number of people

Maryville Baptist would likely succeed on the merits of their claim, under Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, said Hale.

The Catholic Church is planning for a limited resumption of Mass.

“To advance the common good, I have tried to work with public officials to protect the safety of all as we deal with this global health pandemic,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville said in a May 11 statement sent to CNA. “I am pleased to announce today a plan for reopening our churches for public liturgies beginning on May 20 for those churches that are able to open safely.”

In a May 11 letter to the archdiocese’s Catholics, he recognized that many will not yet be able to return to church because of age, infirmity, or other vulnerabilities.

“To those who are not able to attend, please know that we are united as a Body of Christ and that you are with us in spirit and prayer,” he said.

The archbishop has encouraged Masses to continue to be live-streamed and recorded online. He has issued a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation “until further notice.”

Archbishop Kurtz stressed that churches that cannot open safely according to the archdiocese’s directives should delay opening.

Parishes will also have reduced seating capacity, he said. Mass attendees are asked to wear a mask or face covering to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“I know that many find this a burden, but our call as Catholics is to promote the common good.”

Jason D. Hall, executive director of the Kentucky Catholic Conference, told CNA that all four Roman Catholic dioceses are “looking forward to resuming public Masses.” Each diocese will have to move forward realistically based on local conditions, he said.