Federal judge rules all Kentucky churches can have in-person services starting this Sunday

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WKYT) - A federal judge has ruled all Kentucky churches can hold in-person services starting Sunday, May 10, so long as they practice social distancing and hygiene guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(Photo: WKYT/Olivia Russell)

U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove made the ruling Friday evening. It's a result of the lawsuit Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville, Ky., filed against Gov. Andy Beshear, D-Kentucky.

The church's legal team says the lawsuit challenges Governor Beshear’s orders that "prohibit in-person church services and threaten criminal penalties."

“Governor Beshear’s orders unlawfully target religious worship and violate the First Amendment,” said Roger Byron, Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute.

Judge Van Tatenhove built his ruling on the enduring protections and powers the Constitution grants to Americans within the First Amendment. You can read the full order below.

The judge said meeting in-person was 'essential' for the church, and while the governor can put a stop to that, with reason, currently, that reason does not exist despite "an honest motive."

The church argued that it "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." The governor's order, according to the church, violates its First Amendment rights to exercise freedom of religion and freedom of assembly.

Judge Van Tatenhove focused on the freedom of religion in his Friday ruling.

Gov. Beshear's legal time has argued in this lawsuit and similar ones that the ban on mass gatherings is constitutional because it is applied to all mass gatherings, not religious ones specifically.

In his ruling, Judge Van Tatenhove wrote, "The orders at issue do not simply restrict religious expression; they restrict religious expression in an attempt to protect the public health during a global pandemic."

Precedent does give the governor some leeway in enacting certain orders during public health emergencies, said the judge, however, "constitutional rights still exist." But the judge decided the current orders are "beyond what is reasonably required."

The judge also delved into the difference between religious and secular settings and how the governor's applied to them.

"Evidence that the risk of contagion is heightened in a religious setting any more than a secular one is lacking," wrote Judge Van Tatenhove, "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."

Tabernacle Baptist Church said it was committed to worshiping with social distancing guidelines in place.

Judge Van Tatenhove granted the church's request for a temporary restraining order, which will apply to all churches in Kentucky.

“The church will gather together for worship on Sunday with grateful hearts and observe the CDC’s guidelines to keep everyone safe and well," said Byron.

You can read First Liberty's full response to the ruling here.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron, R-Kentucky, said the ruling protects Kentuckians' religious liberties after two rulings in federal courts came down Friday.

"I encourage all houses of worship to prayerfully and carefully consider when it is the right time to resume in-person services consistent with health guidelines. Although these rulings protect the religious liberty of Kentuckians, we must continue to do our part to protect the health of our fellow citizens by reopening carefully," said Cameron.

In mid-March, Gov. Beshear encouraged all churches to cancel in-person services.

Houses of worship are in phase one of the governor's Healthy at Work initiative. The governor said churches, mosques, synagogues, etc., can hold in-person services on May 20 with guidelines in place.

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