LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — A federal judge has ruled that Kentucky churches can hold in-person services beginning Sunday.
U.S. District Court Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove on Friday granted Tabernacle Baptist Church, of Nicholasville, Kentucky, a temporary restraining order against Gov. Andy Beshear's executive order prohibiting mass gatherings, including in-person worship.
As the executive order affects churches throughout the state, Tatenhove, of Frankfort, ruled the injunctive relief granted to Tabernacle Baptist "may extend statewide."
Beshear and other state officials are prohibited from "enforcing the prohibition on mass gatherings with respect to any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines," the ruling reads.
The court held a telephone hearing Friday afternoon, during which Beshear and Eric Friedlander, secretary of the state's Cabinet for Health and Family Services, argued that the executive order was constitutional because it does not single out faith-based mass gatherings, according to court documents.
Tatenhove, however, said Beshear does not have a "compelling reason for using his authority to limit ... the right of every American to follow their conscience on matters related to religion."
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron joined Tabernacle Baptist's legal representatives on the telephone hearing and pushed Tatenhove to apply the injunction granted to the Nicholasville congregation to all Kentucky churches, according to court documents.
"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," Cameron said in a statement released Friday night. "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."
The court's review is "preliminary," Tatenhove said, and another telephone hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday.
Kentucky's houses of worship were scheduled to reopen May 20 as part of Beshear's phased reopening of the state's economy. The governor on Friday released a list of health guidelines congregations must follow to curb the spread of COVID-19, including limiting in-person guests to no more than 33% of buildings' occupancy capacity.
To read Tatenhove's ruling in full, click here.
On Saturday, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled 3-0 in granting an injunction for in-person church services at Maryville Baptist Church in Hillview, Kentucky. The court on May 2 granted the Bullitt County congregation an emergency injunction to hold drive-in services but did not rule on Beshear's in-person ban after having only 24 hours with the case.
The appeals courts' ruling echoes Tatenhove's sentiments in arguing Beshear "has offered no good reason 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," according to court documents.
"Come to think of it, aren’t the two groups of people often the same people—going to work on one day and going to worship on another?" the ruling says. "How can the same person be trusted to comply with social-distancing and other health guidelines in secular settings but not be trusted to do the same in religious settings? The distinction defies explanation, or at least the Governor has not provided one."
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