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Church, pastor accuse Kentucky governor of targeting churchgoers in lawsuit

Maryville Baptist Church in Louisville and its pastor Jack Roberts filed a lawsuit against Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) Friday for allegedly targeting churchgoers with the enforcement of the stay-at-home order on Easter Sunday.

The lawsuit asserts that Beshear violated the residents’ religious freedom by instructing Kentucky State Police to give criminal sanctions to all vehicles in the church’s parking lot on the Christian holiday, including vehicles participating in drive-in services. 

Liberty Counsel, which has represented Christians on the issue of religious liberty, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court in Louisville, saying they were “explicitly targeted, singled out, and punished for participating in a religious or ‘faith-based’ gathering.”

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The police also recorded congregants’ license plates and provided notices for 14-day mandatory quarantines. The notices informed churchgoers that they were required to report their temperatures daily and avoid public places and transportation. 

The state police allegedly did not enter the church, which had a “small number of people … spread far apart in a 700-seat sanctuary,” according to the Liberty Counsel.

Liberty Counsel criticized the governor’s alleged selective enforcement in a release, saying nearby Kroger, Walmart, liquor stores and other parking lots were “packed with cars” and “jammed with people,” but they didn’t receive quarantine notices. 

The group argues in-person services should be allowed as long as the institutions follow social distancing and personal hygiene recommendations. 

Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman, said in a statement that churches have a constitutional right to meet in-person, and the governor’s actions violated congregants’ religious freedom.

“The only reason these people were given notices is because they were in a church parking lot,” he said. “Had they parked in the nearby shopping center they would not have been targeted. This is clearly Gov. Andy Beshear’s discriminating against churches.”

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Beshear said Saturday that he is “not concerned about” the legal battle, the Lexington Herald Leader reported

“God gives us wisdom, and virtually all of our faith leaders are leading with that wisdom,” he said, according to the newspaper. 

The governor’s office warned that attending church gatherings on the holiday weekend would classify as a misdemeanor violation, in a press release two days before Easter.

Other congregants of the church filed a federal lawsuit last week against Beshear and other officials for violating their freedom of religion and to travel. These plaintiffs seek to reach class-action status, according to the Herald Leader.

Ahead of Easter, a judge ruled that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s attempts to ban drive-in services at On Fire Christian Center were unconstitutional, granting the church a temporary restraining order. 

Churches across the country are challenging stay-at-home orders that ban them from meeting in-person. Some states have designated worship services as essential, while others have not.