LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Three Kentuckians who defied a state order on mass gatherings and attended an Easter service in Bullitt County have filed a federal lawsuit alleging Gov. Andy Beshear's COVID-19 measures violate their constitutional rights.
The suit, which seeks to become a class action, was brought by Randall Daniel of Shepherdsville; TJ Roberts of Burlington in Boone County in northern Kentucky; and Sally O'Boyle of Morehead in eastern Kentucky's Rowan County. They claim they received notices to quarantine after going to Maryville Baptist Church in Hillview on Sunday.
"They each did so pursuant to sincerely held religious beliefs that in-person church attendance was required, particularly on Easter Sunday," according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Covington. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.
The suit is asking a judge to declare Beshear's orders unconstitutional and rule they can't be enforced.
"Here in Kentucky, there are so many different ways to worship, and all but one church in this commonwealth are engaged in them," Beshear said Wednesday in response to the lawsuit during his daily briefing on the COVID-19 outbreak. "You can do it virtually. You can do it in a drive-in service, and in many states they are not allowing those drive-in services like we are. So this work — this opportunity to worship, which is so important, is still there. We just ask people to choose one of the versions that doesn't spread the coronavirus, and I think that's what our faith calls us to do."
As COVID-19 cases continued to rise across Kentucky, Beshear issued a ban on all "mass gatherings" in the state on March 19. It prohibited sporting events, concerts, parades, festivals and any other "event or convening that brings together groups of individuals," including religious services.
Prior to the Easter weekend, Beshear said churchgoers who didn't follow the ban would be identified through their license plates and told to self-quarantine for two weeks. Despite the state order, Maryville Baptist Church held an in-person Easter service Sunday morning. On Monday, Beshear said there was only one mass gathering in the state that violated his order.
"This is outrageous discriminatory action by the governor that's not designed to protect the health and welfare of anyone," said Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver, an attorney representing the church, its pastor and two additional Easter attendees who plan to file a separate lawsuit after receiving self-quarantine notices in the mail.
"It is arbitrary. It is unconstitutional," he added. "Simply to give someone a notice of quarantine for 14 days to prohibit them from traveling anywhere and requiring them to report to the county board of health everyday and take your temperature at the same time everyday when they absolutely have no symptoms at all."
The lawsuit says Roberts, Daniel and O'Boyle "ensured appropriate social distancing" and followed other steps in accordance with Centers for Disease Control guidelines, such as sitting six feet away from others and wearing masks.
Moreover, the lawsuit claims no one at the service had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and there's no evidence that anyone with the illness attended. (Public health officials say the disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 can be spread by asymptomatic carriers and take weeks to show symptoms.)
The suit argues there are "numerous exceptions" to the state orders that aren't being enforced, including in retail stores, factories and other places that remain open and "where far more people come into closer contact with less oversight."
The plaintiffs claim their constitutional right to the "free exercise of their religion" is being violated. While Beshear's ban on mass gatherings applies to other events, the lawsuit alleges that the state's action "specifically and explicitly targeted in-person religious gatherings."
Roberts also claims Beshear's order largely banning Kentuckians from traveling to other states violates constitutional due process protections. It's unclear if Roberts is related to Jack Roberts, the pastor of Maryville Baptist.
And the plaintiffs claim they are being deprived of due process because there is no process to appeal the quarantine and other orders.
The suit also names as defendants Kentucky Health Secretary Eric Friedlander and Boone County Attorney Robert Neace, who is being sued for all other county attorneys in the state.
An in-person Bible study went on as planned Wednesday night at Maryville Baptist. A WDRB News crew watched more than 25 people walk through the church doors despite attendees having the option to listen to the Bible study from the parking lot.
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