Sixth Circuit Upholds Kentucky Ban on Mass Gatherings

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks to the media during a 2019 press conference in Louisville. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

(CN) — The Sixth Circuit ruled Saturday to allow a Kentucky church to hold drive-in services, but declined to completely halt Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s temporary mass gathering ban.

The opinion comes after the Maryville Baptist Church requested an emergency order to stop the ban from applying to religious services after a federal judge declined to do so in their lawsuit against the governor.

“We realize that this falls short of everything the church has asked for and much of what it wants,” the panel said in its per curiam ruling. “But that is all we are comfortable doing after the 24 hours the plaintiffs have given us with this case.”

The church will be allowed to hold drive-in services that follow social distancing rules set up by the governor. Beshear plans to allow places of worship to hold in-person services beginning May 20. His stay-at-home order makes exceptions for certain stores and services such as banks, pharmacies and grocery stores.

“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?” the panel wrote. “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 panel showed empathy for the church, they also recognized the governor’s responsibility to keep people safe during the viral outbreak.

“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,” the panel wrote. “But it’s not always easy to decide what is Caesar’s and what is God’s — and that’s assuredly true in the context of a pandemic.”

Beshear’s spokewoman Crystal Staley said the ruling backs up the governor.

“The governor has allowed and even encouraged hundreds of drive-in services across Kentucky,” she said in a statement. “What the Sixth Circuit decided is that drive-in services are okay, but the governor’s order prohibiting in-person services remains in effect. That has been the governor’s exact policy since the beginning.”

An attorney for the church also claimed the ruling to be a win for their side, calling it a “stellar victory.”

“The laws of the commonwealth and the Constitution are not suspended during a crisis or a pandemic,” Mat Staver of the conservative Liberty Counsel.

The church’s request for an emergency order came after U.S. District Judge David Hale denied its request to halt the ban from applying to religious services. Hale said the ban was constitutional since it applied to all mass gatherings.

The church has defied the mass gathering ban in the past few weeks, allowing services to continue.

The panel was made up of Circuit Judges David McKeague, a George W. Bush appointee, John Nalbandian, a Donald Trump appointee, and Jeffrey Sutton, a George W. Bush appointee.

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