A federal court on Saturday allowed Maryville Baptist Church and its pastor, Dr. Jack Roberts, in Kentucky to hold drive-in services, prohibiting the enforcement of the state’s COVID-19 orders.
While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit declined to extend the injunction to in-person services, it noted that Gov. Andy Beshear's ban on faith-based mass gatherings has "several potential hallmarks of discrimination" as it provides exceptions to certain secular activities such as laundromats and liquor stores but not faith groups.
"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 court posed. "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."
The conservative Christian legal nonprofit Liberty Counsel celebrated the partial emergency injunction from a unanimous three-judge panel.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron had filed an amicus brief in support of the church, stating that the “Court should enter an injunction pending appeal ‘to prevent irreparable harm.’”
The court also stated in its ruling that the church is likely to succeed on the merits of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Through an executive order in March, Beshear banned faith-based mass gatherings while providing exemptions for secular organizations and activities, including typical office environments, factories, and retail or grocery stores, Cameron’s office noted.
The order said even though permitted secular activities involved the presence of groups of people, they could continue as long as individuals “maintain appropriate social distancing.” Faith-based gatherings were allowed no such exemption.
“Sure, the Church might use Zoom services or the like ... But who is to say that every member of the congregation has access to the necessary technology to make that work?” the court asked. “Or to say that every member of the congregation must see it as an adequate substitute for what it means when ‘two or three gather in my Name.’ Matthew 18:20.”
It added, "The breadth of the ban on religious services, together with a haven for numerous secular exceptions, should give pause to anyone who prizes religious freedom. But it’s not always easy to decide what is Caesar’s and what is God’s—and that’s assuredly true in the context of a pandemic."
At a press conference on Wednesday, Beshear said retail stores and houses of worship can resume operations on May 20, according to WPSD Local.
“Where they will be able to do in-person services again at a reduced capacity. We’re working on that. It’s likely to be a percentage of the occupancy that is allowed,” Beshear said. “All of this is contingent on being able to keep social distancing, on the type of cleaning that needs to occur.
“And what our hope is, is that on the 20th, what it will allow is just the worship service itself. And then, we’re going to be working with faith leaders. We’ve already been talking with them and encouraging. But working with them to see a gradual schedule where we can go from the one experience to some of the other pieces that typically happen, like Sunday school for instance. But that right now would create very different context. And so let’s start here, and then, let’s have a good dialogue where we can work with those that were on our houses of worship to get a plan to be able to do more as we go.”
On Easter Sunday, Kentucky State Police descended on the service of Maryville Baptist Church and posted notices of criminal violation on all cars in the parking lot, even while the church attendees were listening in their cars to the church’s “drive-in” service, according to Liberty Counsel.
The notices advised congregants they were subject to mandatory, household-wide quarantine because they attended a church service. Gov. 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.
Last month, Beshear also issued executive orders restricting travel into and out of the state, except under certain limited circumstances, to help manage the spread of the coronavirus. Anyone entering or returning from out of state was told to self-quarantine for 14 days.
AG Cameron filed a motion in federal court last week, challenging the travel ban as unconstitutional. He also urged the governor to stop targeting faith-based gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic and allow congregants to start gathering in person at church again.