The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling on one lawsuit filed by the Maryville Baptist Church against Democratic Governor Andy Beshear, stating that injunction on his worship ban issued by a lower court stands.
On March 19, Gov. Beshear prohibited “[a]ll mass gatherings,” including “faith-based” gatherings, in the Commonwealth. On March 25, he issued stay-at-home orders for all organizations that were deemed not “life-sustaining,” including religious organizations except for when they provide “charitable services” like serving food or offering shelter.
On April 12, Maryville Baptist Church held an Easter service during which some congregants parked in the church’s parking lot, stayed inside their cars and listened to the service over a loudspeaker. A small number of others participated by sitting in the church’s sanctuary, which seats roughly 700 people. In response, Kentucky State Police arrived and began issuing notices to the congregants that attending a church service violated the governor’s orders. The officers then recorded the congregants’ license plate numbers and sent threatening letters to vehicle owners about their violations of state law, the court’s statements reports.
Shortly afterwards, two lawsuits were filed; one by the church and a separate one by congregants, arguing the orders violated the free exercise rights of Kentuckians under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Appeals Court issued two published decisions prohibiting the orders from going into effect during the litigation, “each premised on legal assessments of the claimants’ free exercise rights and each still binding in the circuit,” the court’s ruling states. After the court’s decisions, the governor ended his ban on religious services.
Maryville Baptist Church’s appeal asked the court for 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,” the court stated. “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 Governor never appealed that adverse decision. The 30 days for appealing the decision came and went on June 8. And the injunction remains in place. There’s nothing more to it than that. … The district court’s injunction against the ban on church services—all it ever wanted—remains in place.”
However– the governor has raised the possibility of lifting the injunction in the Maryville Baptist Church case, arguing that “intervening legal developments make it wrong.”
The court stated in response, “That the Governor has filed a pleading in the Maryville Baptist Church case raising the possibility of dissolving the injunction on the ground of subsequent legal developments suggests that the case is not over— that he wishes to have authority to ban indoor church services again.”
Currently, Kentuckians must abide by a June 10 Executive Order, which requires church attendance to not exceed 50 percent of a building’s occupancy capacity.
Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit religious liberty law firm defending the church, won the injunction pending appeal from the Court of Appeals and from the federal District Court granting the request for parking lot and in-person church services on behalf of the church and its pastor Dr. Jack Roberts. The March 19 and 25 orders issued by Gov. Beshear previously prohibited ALL religious services, while allowing many secular services, Liberty Counsel notes.
“The executive orders clearly targeted religious services for discriminatory treatment,” Liberty Counsel argues. “Under the orders, the church could hold meetings to feed, shelter, and provide social services to an unlimited number of people, but religious services were banned in the same building where nonreligious services could be held.”
Gov. Beshear and state police not only reportedly threatened to target anyone who attended a church service, but state police placed quarantine notices on the windshields of each car, including on those in which church attendees were sitting inside their cars. Liberty Counsel explains:
“Anyone whose car was in the parking lot on Easter Sunday received a letter from Gov. Beshear requiring them to sign a document agreeing to take their temperatures every day at the same time and report each day to the Board of County Health Department; to not attend work, school, or shopping centers, church, or any public place; to not travel outside the county; to not travel outside of Kentucky without prior approval; and to not travel by public, commercial, or emergency conveyance such as a bus, taxi, airplane, train, or boat without prior approval.
“Yet on that same Sunday, the parking lots of Kroger, Walmart, liquors stores and other commercial operations within minutes of the church were packed with cars. These businesses were jammed with people. Not one person received a quarantine notice. Gov. Beshear targeted churchgoers parked in a church parking lot to intimidate and isolate them.”
The Court of Appeals’ recent ruling “reaffirmed that Maryville Baptist Church continues to have the protection of the injunction that blocked Gov. Andy Beshear’s prior orders,”Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said. “Churches have a constitutional right to meet, and the First Amendment does not disappear during a crisis. Gov. Beshear clearly targeted this church and violated these church members’ religious freedom. If Gov. Beshear attempts to reimpose restrictions on churches, we will return to the Court of Appeals to stop him.”