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Supreme Court rejects Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out

The Supreme Court in a 7-2 ruling on Thursday rejected a Christian school’s bid for a religious carve-out from Kentucky’s coronavirus restrictions, which include a temporary shutdown of in-person instruction at both religious and secular schools.

In an unsigned order denying the Danville Christian Academy’s religious-based exemption request, the court noted that Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s (D) school-closure directive would be expiring in roughly a week, and that “there is no indication that it will be renewed.”

Two of the court’s more conservative members, Justices Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoLaurence Tribe: Justice Thomas is out of order on 2020 election Supreme Court won't review Pennsylvania GOP election lawsuits A powerful tool to take on the Supreme Court — if Democrats use it right MORE and Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchThe Jan. 6 case for ending the Senate filibuster Laurence Tribe: Justice Thomas is out of order on 2020 election McConnell backs Garland for attorney general MORE, wrote separate dissents.

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Beshear’s order required all Kentucky schools — both public and private, and both secular and religious schools alike — to stop in-person instruction from late November through early January, sparking the school’s legal challenge.

Danville Christian Academy, a private pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school located south of Lexington, Ky., argued that the restrictions amount to an illegal shutdown of religious activity.

The school was joined in its lawsuit by Kentucky’s GOP attorney general Daniel Cameron. More than three dozen Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe bizarre back story of the filibuster The Bible's wisdom about addressing our political tribalism Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' MORE (Ky.), filed a supportive amicus brief.

Beshear, for his part, defended his school shutdown order as lawful since it applies to both secular and religious schools.

A federal district court blocked the order from applying to religious schools, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit halted the lower court’s ruling, prompting the school’s Supreme Court application. 

In their Thursday order, the justices suggested the school may have been on stronger legal footing if it had argued that Kentucky’s health order deprived parents of their right “to direct the education of their children,” which the court recognized in a 1990 case. 

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In his dissent, Gorsuch said he would have reversed the Sixth Circuit’s decision. He added that public health officials should not be able to “evade judicial review by issuing short-term edicts,” while retaining the authority to impose similar measures in the future. 

“Come January 4, a new school semester will be about to start,” Gorsuch wrote, “and the Governor has expressly told us that he reserves the right to issue more decrees like these if and when religious schools try to resume holding classes.”

The court has recently issued orders giving favorable treatment to religious challenges to health restrictions. The justices on Tuesday sided with religious groups in Colorado and New Jersey that sought carve-outs from their state's COVID-19 limits. 

The legal rationale behind the recent rulings is that limits on gatherings at houses of worship cannot be more restrictive than those placed on businesses that governments have deemed essential. 

Critics say the recent rulings favoring religious carve-outs point to an alarming trend of the conservative justices substituting their own judgment for that of public health experts amid a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths.