Federal judge halts Kentucky temporary ban on church mass gatherings

A federal judge blocked Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s (D) temporary ban on mass gatherings amid the coronavirus pandemic from applying to religious services. 

U.S. District Judge Greg Van Tatenhove issued a temporary restraining order Friday evening against Beshear’s ban on large gatherings at “any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines,” The Associate Press reported.

 
The ruling will allow Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville, Ky., which filed the lawsuit, to meet in person during services Sunday. The ruling also applies to any other Kentucky congregation.  

Two other federal judges had previously ruled that Beshear’s ban was constitutional.

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The news comes following a ruling by U.S. District Judge David Hale on Friday that granted Maryville Baptist Church the option to hold in-person services. The ruling only applied to that specific church, and it had to abide by public health requirements, according to the AP. 

Beshear previously announced that Kentucky religious organizations will be allowed to hold in-person services beginning on May 20 as part of a plan to begin reopening the state’s economy.

Earlier on Friday, the southern governor said places of worship would have to limit attendance at in-person services to one-third of building occupancy and have worshippers keep a 6-foot distance between households, according to the news source. 

Beshear’s office released a list of requirements that churches should follow while reopening, like observing social distancing and to “consider taking congregants’ temperatures,” among other measures, the Lexington Herald Leader reported. 

Van Tatenhove said Beshear had “an honest” motive in seeking to stem the spread of the virus, but he did not 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,” according to the news source.

“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 said. “But that is not our tradition. Its enduring quality requires that it be respected even when it is hard.” 

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The church has said that it will follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and social distancing practices, according to the AP.

During a Saturday press conference, Beshear called for congregations to “take your time” in reopening and follow guidelines from health officials, the Lexington Herald Leader reported.

“Be careful. Make sure that you do it right,” Beshear said. “Don’t come back just to come back.”