Gov. Andy Beshear

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has lost his fight to close classrooms in religious schools -- at least for now.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove on Wednesday ruled Beshear can't prohibit in-person instruction to any religious private school in the commonwealth as long as they're following proper social distancing and hygiene guidelines.

Beshear "has every right to impose some restrictions on all schools," Van Tatenhove wrote in his order.

"Social distancing, face masks, limits on class size, reporting requirements, and other protocols may cost money and may be inconvenient for parents and students, but we give executives increased discretion in times of crisis," the judge said. "But in an effort to do the right thing to fight the virus, the Governor cannot do the wrong thing by infringing protected values."

The ruling overturns an executive order issued by Beshear, as it pertains to religious schools, that forced public and private schools throughout Kentucky to close starting Monday.

Elementary schools could be allowed to reopen for in-person instruction Dec. 7 if their counties are no longer in the state's "red zone" for COVID-19 incidence rates, Beshear said. All but three of Kentucky's 120 counties fall into that category as of Wednesday, state data show.

Middle and high school classrooms can reopen Jan. 4, Beshear said.

Last week, Danville Christian Academy and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron filed a complaint saying Beshear's executive order violated the Constitution.

Soon after Wednesday's ruling was issued, Beshear filed a motion to appeal the decision.

In a statement, Crystal Staley, a spokesperson for the governor, said the administration will appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

"Let's be clear: lives are on the line and everyone must do their part to defeat the virus," she said.

Cameron said in a statement that Wednesday's ruling "firmly upheld" constitutional protections for religious exercise "by recognizing that Kentuckians have a right to worship and express their faith through a religious education."

"This is not the first time during this pandemic where religious exercise has been threatened, first with the prohibition on drive-in church services, then in-person worship services, and now in-person instruction at religious schools," Cameron said in a statement.

"In each of these instances, the courts have affirmed that the freedoms provided by our Constitution are stronger than the fears of the moment and cannot be cast aside by the Governor or any leader."

First Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas, legal firm representing Danville Christian Academy, also praised Van Tatenhove's decision. 

"The court recognized that Governor Beshear’s order prohibiting religious schools from holding in-person classes goes beyond his authority and violates the First Amendment,” Roger Byron, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, said in a statement. “We are grateful the court restored the rule of law."

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