Today, Liberty Counsel won an emergency injunction from a unanimous three-judge panel on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, prohibiting the enforcement of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s March 19 and 25 COVID-19 orders against church services at Maryville Baptist Church and its pastor Dr. Jack Roberts. The rare Saturday injunction protects this church services this weekend.
The Court ruled that the church is likely to succeed on the merits of the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
On Thursday night, Liberty Counsel filed for an injunction pending appeal. On Friday, the Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron filed a compelling amicus brief in support of Liberty Counsel’s lawsuit against Beshear, stating: “The Court should enter an injunction pending appeal ‘to prevent irreparable harm.’”
The March 19 and 25 orders issued by Gov. Beshear prohibit ALL religious services, while allowing many secular exemptions.
Liberty Counsel sued Governor Beshear on behalf of the church after Kentucky State Police descended on the church’s Easter Sunday service and posted notices of criminal violation on all cars in the parking lot, even while the church attendees were listening in their cars to the church’s “drive-in” service. The notices advised congregants they were subject to mandatory, household-wide quarantine just for attending a church service. Then Gov. Beshear sent letters to the owners and occupants of the vehicles demanding quarantine with more threats of sanctions for not complying with government supervision.
Although the trial court judge refused to grant a temporary injunction against Gov. Beshear’s orders, the Court of Appeals had no trouble concluding that the orders violate the church’s rights to free exercise of religion under the U.S. Constitution and Kentucky law.
The Court of Appeals wrote: “Orders prohibiting religious gatherings, enforced by police officers telling congregants they violated a criminal law and by officers taking down license plate numbers, amount to a significant burden on worship gatherings…The breadth of the ban on religious services, together with a haven for numerous secular exceptions, should give pause to anyone who prizes religious freedom.”
Quoting Scripture, the Court of Appeals noted Kentucky cannot dictate that all congregants simply become spectators of online services: “Sure, the Church might use Zoom services or the like . . . . But who is to say that every member of the congregation has access to the necessary technology to make that work? Or to say that every member of the congregation must see it as an adequate substitute for what it means when ‘two or three gather in my Name.’ Matthew 18:20.”
The Court of Appeals also openly questioned the governor’s favored treatment of countless businesses. “The exception for ‘life-sustaining’ businesses allows law firms, laundromats, liquor stores, and gun shops to continue to operate so long as they follow social-distancing and other health-related precautions. But the orders do not permit soul-sustaining group services of faith organizations, even if the groups adhere to all the public health guidelines required of essential services and even when they meet outdoors.”
The Court of Appeals continued, “Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why is it safe to wait in a car for a liquor store to open but dangerous to wait in a car to hear morning prayers? Why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew? And why can someone safely interact with a brave deliverywoman but not with a stoic minister? The Commonwealth has no good answers. While the law may take periodic naps during a pandemic, we will not let it sleep through one.”
In addition, the Court noted: “Keep in mind that the Church and Dr. Roberts do not seek to insulate themselves from the Commonwealth’s general public health guidelines. They simply wish to incorporate them into their worship services.”
The Court of Appeals also wrote: “While the law may take periodic naps during a pandemic, we will not let it sleep through one.” (emphasis added).
Finally, the Court wrote: “The breadth of the ban on religious services, together with a haven for numerous secular exceptions, should give pause to anyone who prizes religious freedom. But it’s not always easy to decide what is Caesar’s and what is God’s – and that is assuredly true in the context of a pandemic.”
The Court then enjoined Gov. Beshear and the Commonwealth from enforcing orders prohibiting drive-in services at the Maryville Baptist Church. The Court of Appeals then urged the lower court to “prioritize resolution of the claims raised in the case.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “This is stellar victory for religious freedom. From the beginning we have said that Gov. Andy Beshear’s orders violated the First Amendment and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The laws of the Commonwealth and the Constitution are not suspended during a crisis or a pandemic. Gov. Beshear intentionally banned religious services for no reason other than he wanted to. This decision clearly reveals he was wrong.”