LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A federal judge has granted a temporary restraining order filed by a Louisville church against Mayor Greg Fischer to allow drive-in service on Easter Sunday.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Justin Walker of Louisville keeps the city from getting involved in On Fire Christian Church's drive-in services but doesn't apply to other churches in the city.
In his ruling, Walker blasted the mayor's decision to prohibit drive-in church services as "beyond all reason" and akin to what one might find only in a dystopian novel. Fischer, however, said that in a global pandemic, he is simply trying to save lives.
On Fire Christian Church filed a lawsuit Friday asking for the order. The church sought to "block (Fischer's) prohibition on churches holding drive-in services during the COVID-19 pandemic," according to the First Liberty Institute, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the church.
Representatives from the church said that for weeks they have been hosting in the church parking lot drive-in services that adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. "Gathering on Easter is critical" for its congregation, the church argued in the lawsuit.
Fischer, when announcing the prohibition, said he couldn't allow "hundreds of thousands" of people to drive around town this weekend in observance of Easter festivities when they need to be home riding out the pandemic.
However, on Saturday, Walker issued the restraining order, which prevents the city from "enforcing; attempting to enforce; threatening to enforce; or otherwise requiring compliance with any prohibition on drive-in church services at On Fire," according to court documents.
William Hardy stood with a small group of people waving signs Saturday evening outside the church, while cars driving past on New Cut Road honked to celebrate the ruling.
"I am not a member of this church," Hardy said, "but I will be here bright and early at 10:30 to worship with them."
Walker called Fischer's decision "stunning," and "beyond all reason, unconstitutional," according to court documents. "On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter. That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of 'The Onion,'" he wrote.
Church representatives also argued that preventing their congregation from gathering, while allowing cars to gather in other parking lots, violates the First Amendment and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Act.
"In this case, Louisville is violating the Free Exercise Clause 'beyond all question,'" he wrote. "Here, Louisville has targeted religious worship by prohibiting drive-in church services, while not prohibiting a multitude of other non-religious drive-ins and drive-throughs — including, for example, drive-through liquor stores."
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY., tweeted his approval.
"Grateful for this strong, eloquent ruling defending Kentuckians' religious liberty from Judge Justin Walker ... Of course church parking lots cannot be singled out with unfair standards that differ from other establishments," he wrote. McConnell, who attended Walker's swearing-in ceremony in March, recently sent a letter to Fischer urging him to permit church services that adhere to CDC guidelines.
At McConnell's encouragement, President Donald trump recently nominated Walker for a seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. A seat on that court is considered one of the most senior judicial positions beneath the U.S. Supreme Court.
In response to Walker's ruling, Fischer said his decision was driven by protecting others' lives and preventing the spread of COVID-19.
"I have put in place emergency orders in the city, but I have not directed law enforcement activity against drive-in services because, frankly, I didn't think I would have to," Fischer said during a teleconference briefing. "I thought that people would be able to see the common sense that we know endangers us when we get together. ... It's that concern that drives me to, again, implore and ask people to not go to any type of drive-in service (and) certainly any in-person church service as well where people (will) be gathered together inside a building.
During his response, Fischer referenced photos of previous drive-in services at the church that show members violating social-distancing guidelines.
"They are close to each other. It looks like they're having a good time, and it looks like they are praising in a very meaningful way, which everybody wants to do," Fischer said. "But they're also potentially spreading the virus to each other.
"... On the restraining order, I regret that the judge did not allow us to present evidence that would have demonstrated there has no been legal enforcement mechanisms communicated," the mayor added. "We attempted twice to contact the court so that we could have presented the case and that would have obviated the need for this restraining order. I'm sorry that didn't take place, but just want to emphasize again to people that the science behind this is really, really clear and all we're trying to do here is save lives and we've got to show the discipline to get through this and we can worship again when we're in a safer mode."
Fischer also expressed concern that Walker's ruling would create confusion regarding the ability to attend in-person worship services, which is a violation of Gov. Andy Beshear's executive order banning mass gatherings. During his briefing on the COVID-19 outbreak Saturday, Beshear said he has always been in favor of drive-in services if they follow proper social distancing. He said Fischer took his order a step further but was in support of the mayor's decision because of the "density of Louisville."
"Remember, that ruling doesn't say it's OK to have in-person services," Beshear added. "Another federal court has upheld the kind of healthy at home order that we have."
Officers with the Louisville Metro Police Department will attend known in-person church gatherings around the city Sunday. In addition to collecting attendees' license plate information, Fischer said the officers will pass out flyers that list the public health consequences and personal medical consequences of their decision to attend a mass gathering.
"Right now we'll just be collecting the information to make sure no one shows up sick," said Dr. Sarah Moyer, director of Metro Public Health & Wellness. "As soon as we find out someone is sick or needs to quarantine, then we would do the official self-quarantining process."
"Almost everybody has been complying," Fischer added. "For those that are not, please ask yourself, 'Why are you in the one-tenth, 1% that thinks these rules to protect our community don't apply to you?' Please, ask that in the context of your faith tradition about us protecting each other and loving one other."
Representatives with On Fire said all cars at drive-in services are parked 6 feet apart, and church members stay in their vehicles during worship. In a Facebook post Friday, the church said it plans to host a "great drive-in service" on Sunday. Representatives said security personnel will be present.
The church said it sent a letter to Fischer on Thursday asking him to rescind his guidelines on drive-in church services. The church said no one in his office responded, which prompted the lawsuit.
Attorneys on the case are now working to extend the church's legal protection past Easter.
"Government officials are trying to do the best they can, but I think sometimes they forget about the Constitution," said attorney Hiram Sasser of the First Liberty Institute, part of a team of attorneys representing On Fire Church. "When religious liberty is in line with the CDC guidelines, then the government has no business trying to stop them."
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