A federal judge in Kentuck has overturned Governor Andy Beshear’s ban on mass gatherings as it relates to in-person church services. The ruling clears the way for churchgoers to attend services on Sunday.
U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove issued a temporary restraining order against the governor’s rule after two other federal judges upheld the ban as constitutional. The order will allow services at “any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines.”
The federal judge’s order in the Tabernacle Baptist Church case said Beshear had “an honest motive” in wanting to safeguard Kentuckians’ health and lives, but didn’t provide “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.”
Tabernacle had broadcast services on Facebook and held drive-in services, but the substitutes offered “cold comfort,” according to the opinion. The opinion went on to say that Tabernacle alleged irreparable injury and was likely to succeed on the merits of its federal constitutional claim, as the defendants didn’t “dispute the challenged orders place a burden on the free exercise of religion in Kentucky.”
Van Tatenhove was eloquent in his defense of religious liberty.
“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,” Van Tatenhove’s opinion read. “But that is not our tradition. Its enduring quality requires that it be respected even when it is hard.”
His opinion says Kentucky’s attorney general urged the court to apply the injunction statewide, and since the executive order challenged didn’t solely apply to Tabernacle, the injunction granted would also have a similar scope.
“Both rulings affirm that the law prohibits the government from treating houses of worship differently than secular activities during this pandemic,” Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron said in a statement.
Those who don’t want to risk exposure will stay home; those who want to worship will go to church. Citizens in Kentucky will now have the choice and not have it made for them by the state. The government is being forced by the courts to treated Kentuckians like adults, and not helpless children.
Favorable court opinions have been few and far between during the pandemic as courts generally recognize the authority of the state to override constitutional rights. Perhaps now that governors are reopening, the need to sue in order to exercise religious freedom will no longer be necessary.