LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Saturday declined to block the Kentucky governor’s temporary ban on massing gatherings from applying to in-person religious services.
The three-judge panel did clear the way for Maryville Baptist Church to hold drive-in worship services while adhering to public health requirements. That’s an alternative that Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has strongly encouraged throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
But the panel stopped short of applying its order to in-person worship services.
The ruling came soon after the church asked the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for an emergency order stopping Beshear’s mass gathering ban from being enforced against religious services.
“We realize that this falls short of everything the church has asked for and much of what it wants,”‘ the Cincinnati-based appeals court panel said Saturday. “But that is all we are comfortable doing after the 24 hours the plaintiffs have given us with this case.
It urged a federal district judge to “prioritize resolution” of the church’s claims in its lawsuit.
Beshear recently announced that places of worship in Kentucky will be able to once again hold in-person services starting May 20. It’s part of a broader plan to gradually reopen the state’s economy. Exceptions to his shutdown order include trips to the grocery store, bank, pharmacy and hardware store.
In Saturday’s opinion, the judges took note of those “secular exceptions.”
“The breadth of the ban on religious services, together with a haven for numerous secular exceptions, should give pause to anyone who prizes religious freedom,” the panel wrote, before concluding “it’s not always easy to decide what is Caesar’s and what is God’s — and that’s assuredly true in the context of a pandemic.”
The ruling supports what Beshear has said all along, according to his spokeswoman, Crystal Staley.
“The governor has allowed and even encouraged hundreds of drive-in services across Kentucky,” she said in a statement Saturday. “What the Sixth Circuit decided is that drive-in services are okay, but the governor’s order prohibiting in-person services remains in effect. That has been the governor’s exact policy since the beginning.”
Maryville Baptist Church’s attorneys — from the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian group — cited passages from the ruling in claiming a “stellar victory.” The group claims Beshear’s order violates constitutional protections and Kentucky law.
“The laws of the commonwealth and the Constitution are not suspended during a crisis or a pandemic,” said Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver.
The appeals court panel said Beshear’s orders have “several potential hallmarks of discrimination.”
“We don’t doubt the governor’s sincerity in trying to do his level best to lessen the spread of the virus or his authority to protect the commonwealth’s citizens,” the panel said. “And we agree that no one, whether a person of faith or not, has a right ‘to expose the community … to communicable disease.'”
“But restrictions inexplicably applied to one group and exempted from another do little to further these goals and do much to burden religious freedom,” it added.
Assuming all the same precautions are taken, the panel said: “Why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew?”
The church turned to the appeals court after a federal judge refused to stop Beshear’s order from applying to religious services. U.S. District Judge David Hale said the governor’s order bans all mass gatherings and thus does not discriminate against religion.
Hale said he would set up additional hearings. But attorneys for the Bullitt County church were dissatisfied with the pace of Hale’s consideration of the suit.
Maryville has defied Beshear’s order for houses of worship to not hold in-person services amid the COVID-19 outbreak. At least 50 people attended its Easter service at the church, with more services held in the past few weeks.
In response, the governor said Kentucky State Police troopers would record license plates and place notices on the vehicles of attendees at the Easter service. The notices told attendees they would have to self-quarantine.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, even death.