CINCINNATI (CN) — A unanimous Sixth Circuit panel has rejected an attempt by a Kentucky church and its congregants to invalidate executive orders banning in-person church services during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
The ruling handed down Monday found that the case is moot because of a previous injunction and because Democratic Governor Andy Beshear has already amended the executive orders at issue to allow the services.
The initial restrictions were levied by Beshear in March during the onset of the pandemic and originally banned all mass gatherings, which included in-person religious services.
On April 12, the Maryville Baptist Church held an in-person Easter service in violation of the governor’s executive orders. Attendees were given notices by the Kentucky State Police ordering them to self-quarantine for 14 days.
The quarantine notices spawned a lawsuit from the church and another from the congregants, both of which sought to invalidate the governor’s restrictions.
After court injunctions halted enforcement of the public gathering ban, Beshear amended his executive orders on May 9 to allow for indoor church services if attendance did not exceed 33% of the building’s capacity. On June 10, the governor raised the limit to 50% capacity.
In its ruling, the Sixth Circuit panel found that because the governor never appealed a May injunction against the gathering ban, the church was already successful.
“Maryville Baptist Church asks for one thing on appeal: an order requiring the district court to issue a preliminary injunction prohibiting the governor from enforcing the worship ban against the church. But it already has what it wants. On May 8, the district court did just that. It entered a preliminary injunction preventing the governor from enforcing the worship ban against the church,” the unsigned ruling states.
It continues, “Having gotten what it wants, the church has no right to obtain an ‘affirmance’ of an order the governor does not appeal. The district court’s injunction against the ban on church services—all it ever wanted—remains in place.”
The panel was comprised of U.S. Circuit Judges Jeffrey Sutton, David McKeague and John Nalbandian. Sutton and McKeague were both appointed by George W. Bush and Nalbandian was appointed by President Donald Trump.
During oral arguments in the case less than a week ago, the church argued that the matter was not moot because the governor could go back on the revised executive orders. However, the Cincinnati-based appeals court did not find that argument persuasive and dismissed the church’s appeal.
The court also rejected the similar lawsuit brought forth by the congregants but left a window open for further review, finding that the case should be tossed back to the lower court to decide if it should be consolidated with the church’s suit. And regardless, the lower court must determine if the congregates’ case is also moot in light of the amended executive orders.
“This approach will allow the governor to decide exactly what his litigating position is—whether the cases are moot in light of his recent orders or whether subsequent legal developments require the district court to revisit the orders. If either party remains injured by any subsequent ruling, we will consider the matter through a timely appeal,” the ruling states.
Kentucky has reported a total of 75,144 confirmed cases of Covid-19, including 1,326 deaths, according to the state’s coronavirus website.
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