Ky. churches hold in-person worship services after federal judges' rulings

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Churches in Kentucky held in-person worship services over the weekend after two federal judges on Friday ruled in favor of churches wanting to gather physically. But state health guidelines require them to avoid choir singing during services.

U.S. District Judges Gregory Van Tatenhove and David Hale granted two separate temporary restraining orders on Friday against Gov. Andy Beshear’s enforcement of “the prohibition on mass gatherings with respect to any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines.” 

While one of the lawsuits was filed by Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville, Judge Van Tatenhove’s ruling also applies to all congregations in the state as long as they follow the state guidelines.

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“Tabernacle Baptist Church wants to gather for corporate worship. They want to freely exercise their deeply held religious belief about what it means to be a faithful Christian. For them, it is ‘essential’ that they do so. And they want to invoke the Constitution’s protection on this point,” Van Tatenhove wrote.

“But the governor, by executive order, has put a stop to that. He can do that, but he must have 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. ... Despite an honest motive, it does not appear at this preliminary stage that reason exists.”

The judge also noted that just as Home Depot and Kroger were operating while observing social distancing rules, in-person religious services could also do so.

“Governor Beshear’s orders unlawfully target religious worship and violate the First Amendment,” Roger Byron, senior counsel for the conservative Christian legal nonprofit First Liberty Institute, said.

In its lawsuit, Tabernacle argued, “Defendants’ statewide ban on religious worship services is a substantial burden on the religious exercise of Tabernacle and its members if they cannot meet for in-person corporate worship.

“For six weeks, since March 22, 2020, Tabernacle and its congregants have been unable to gather for religious worship in person in their sanctuary for fear of criminal prosecution despite their willingness to abide by social distancing precautions.

“Tabernacle has a sincerely-held religious belief that online services and drive-in services do not meet the Lord’s requirement that the church meet together in person for corporate worship.”

“Tabernacle also believes that online and drive-in church services are not substitutes for real in-person corporate worship.”

Similarly, Judge Hale allowed Maryville Baptist Church in Louisville to hold in-person worship services, but specified, “so long as the church, its ministers, and its congregants adhere to public health requirements set by state officials.”

Last month on Easter Sunday, Kentucky State Police gave attendees of Maryville's drive-in service notices of criminal violation.

The notices advised congregants, who had remained in their cars during the service, that they were subject to mandatory, household-wide quarantine because they attended a church service. Beshear also sent letters to the owners and occupants of the vehicles, demanding quarantine with more threats of sanctions for not complying with government supervision.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit noted that Beshear’s ban on faith-based mass gatherings had “several potential hallmarks of discrimination” as it provided exceptions to certain secular activities such as laundromats and liquor stores but not faith groups.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said the rulings protect religious freedom.

“I encourage all houses of worship to prayerfully and carefully consider when it is the right time to resume in-person services consistent with health guidelines. Although these rulings protect the religious liberty of Kentuckians, we must continue to do our part to protect the health of our fellow citizens by reopening carefully,” Cameron said.

The state released on Friday its state health guidelines for houses of worship to reopen on May 20, requiring limited seating capacity — no more than 33 percent of the building occupancy capacity — and encouraging them to not have congregational or choir singing during services.

Beshear encouraged the houses of worship that cannot meet the guidelines to not reopen.

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