Denver Newsroom, May 11, 2020 / 16:30 pm
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.”