Federal Judge: If You Can Social Distance at Kroger, You Can Social Distance at Church

There’s been a major victory for religious liberty in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Federal Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove issued a temporary restraining order preventing Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear from enforcing his order that bans in-person church services.

First Liberty Institute filed the motion on Wednesday on behalf of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville. However, the judge’s order applies to all churches.

“If social distancing is good enough for Home Depot and Kroger, it is good enough for in-person religious services which, unlike the foregoing, benefit from constitutional protection,” the judge wrote in his decision.

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The judge’s decision allows “mass gatherings with respect to any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines.”

“Judge Van Tatenhove recognized that Governor Beshear’s order unlawfully prohibits religious worship and violates the First Amendment,” said First Liberty senior counsel Roger Byron said.  “The church will gather together for worship on Sunday with grateful hearts and observe the CDC’s guidelines to keep everyone safe and well.”

On March 25, Governor Beshear issued Executive Order 2020-257, and asserted religious organizations are not “life-sustaining” organizations, except when they function as charities by providing “food, shelter, and social services.”  But while restricting churches the Governor permits people to congregate indoors in a variety of other contexts, from big-box stores, to grocery stores, to laundromats, to liquor stores, so long as they do so consistent with social distancing practices.

“The Constitution will endure,” he wrote. “It would be easy to put it on the shelf in times like this, to be pulled down and dusted off when more convenient. But that is not our tradition. Its enduring quality requires that it be respected event when it is hard.”

Leaders of Tabernacle Baptist said they were still committed to physically gathering in a manner consistent with social distancing guidelines issued by the CDC and Governor Beshear’s March 25 order.

“The state cannot forbid people to assemble in a room for a religious reason but allow them to assemble in a room for a secular reason,” said Matthew Martens, partner at WilmerHale.  “The Governor’s order does just that, and that is a textbook violation of the free exercise of religion.”


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