A church in Kentucky has filed a lawsuit in federal court against Gov. Andy Beshear and a top health official over orders prohibiting in-person services, even though the church has put in place social distancing precautions.
Tabernacle Baptist Church of Nicholasville filed the lawsuit on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky seeking an injunction against March 19 and March 25 orders banning mass gatherings amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plaintiff claims the orders wrongfully target the church and interferes with sincerely-held religious beliefs. The lawsuit lists the governor and Acting Secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Eric Friedlander as defendants.
“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,” the complaint reads.
“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.”
Although the church has conducted drive-in services over the last few weeks, the lawsuit claims that “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,” the lawsuit contends.
Tabernacle insists that it would follow guidelines for social distancing, including keeping families at least 6 feet apart from each other and regularly disinfect touched items and surfaces.
“Defendants’ prohibition of in-person church services in the name of social distancing is not generally-applicable,” the lawsuit argues. “There are numerous business organizations and other entities that Defendants are not cracking down on where far more people come into closer contact with less oversight.”
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron on Wednesday asked to join Tabernacle’s lawsuit and argued that the worship service ban violates the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Cameron also threatened to file a lawsuit on April 28.
“Even in times of crisis, the law must be followed, and it’s my job as Attorney General to defend it when it comes under attack,” Cameron said in a statement. “Our Constitution demands neutrality, and Governor Beshear’s executive orders target the practice of religion in every part of the Commonwealth by allowing secular activities while prohibiting faith-based gatherings.”
Roger Byron, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute, which is helping to represent Tabernacle Baptist, said in a statement Wednesday that he believed the orders “unlawfully target religious worship and violate the First Amendment.”
“The Constitution forbids the government from burdening churches with restrictions that are not imposed on other entities,” Byron stressed. “The fundamental rights of religious Americans who seek to abide by the public health guidelines during this pandemic may not be singled out for onerous restrictions.”
“Corporate worship is an important part of many faiths, and we have to balance that right with the need to protect public health during this crisis,” Cameron added. “Governor Beshear’s orders fail to strike this important and necessary balance.”
Beshear responded to the Tabernacle lawsuit during a press briefing on Wednesday. According to The Courier-Journal, Beshear said that the state is three weeks away from being able to allow in-person services.
"We want to get people back — at the right levels and in a safe way — to an in-person service, but only if a church is ready," Beshear said. "And I just request everybody spend the next couple weeks, because you've been doing that virtual service or that drive-in service, figuring out the best way to do it."
Last month, members of Maryville Baptist Church of Hillview in Bullitt County filed legal action against Kentucky after state police recorded the license plates of people who attended the church’s Easter worship service.
Attendees were informed that they would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine even though they wore face coverings during the service and followed social distancing protocols.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that Maryville Baptist could hold drive-in worship services despite the bans on in-person gatherings.
"Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why is it safe to wait in a car for a liquor store to open but dangerous to wait in a car to hear morning prayers?" the three-judge panel reasoned in its opinion.
"The Governor has offered no good reason so far for refusing to trust the congregants who promise to use care in worship in just the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and laundromat workers to do the same."