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Kentucky Church Targeted in 2020 Lockdown Returns to Court of Appeals


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A Kentucky church that was targeted by state police at the governor's command is back in federal court. They're still fighting for justice after churchgoers sitting in cars were given tickets during a drive-in church service at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

Liberty Counsel filed a brief to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 17 arguing that Maryville Baptist Church and the pastor, Dr. Jack Roberts, are the prevailing parties in the federal lawsuit against Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear for unlawful lockdown restrictions against the church and its pastor. 

On Easter Sunday 2020, Gov. Beshear sent law enforcement to issue citations to people parked in their cars who came to listen to an Easter message broadcast on speakers. 

Yet, the nonprofit religious rights law firm points out that on that same Easter Sunday, the parking lots of stores and other commercial operations within minutes of the church were packed with cars. These businesses were jammed with people. Not one of those people received a quarantine notice. 

slider img 2In its brief, Liberty Counsel states Maryville Baptist Church and its pastor are the prevailing parties in the case because the church and the pastor won an emergency injunction pending an appeal from the Sixth Circuit and a preliminary injunction from the lower district court allowing them to assemble and complete 40 consecutive Sunday worship services free from the governor's worship ban prior to the Republican General Assembly's passing legislation curbing the governor's emergency powers. 

As a result, the law firm's clients are the prevailing parties and should be entitled to attorney's fees and costs.

Liberty Counsel points out the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has already issued two 3-0 decisions in favor of the church's parking lot and in-person services. Despite the church's wins, however, the trial court denied Liberty Counsel's clients prevailing-party status for attorney's fees and costs in September 2022. This decision goes against the weight of the legal authorities. 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, "Governor Andy Beshear may not violate the First Amendment without any consequences. The courts blocked the governor's unconstitutional restrictions on churches and places of worship. Liberty Counsel secured all the relief sought on behalf of Maryville Baptist Church and is entitled to prevailing party status." 

As CBN News reported in May of 2020, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Maryville Baptist could hold drive-in church services, but did not lift the governor's ban on in-person church meetings.

Liberty Counsel on behalf of the church and its pastor, sued Beshear after the Kentucky State Police handed out criminal violation warnings during that Easter service.

The warning advised churchgoers that they were under mandatory quarantine just for attending the church service. And Gov. Beshear sent letters to vehicle owners who were inside the church demanding they adhere to the quarantine, along with the threat of more penalties for not observing the order.

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The Court of Appeals indicated those actions are a likely violation of the church's rights to the free exercise of religion under the U.S. Constitution and Kentucky law but declined to make a broad ruling citing that it would need more time.

Now, almost three years later, the appeals court has not added to its ruling. 

According to court documents filed May 2, 2020, "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." 

The Court of Appeals highlighted that the state of Kentucky cannot force all worshippers to become an online church audience. "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."

And the Court of Appeals questioned Gov. Beshear's stance toward other businesses such as liquor stores and laundromats that were operating as usual.

"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," the order reads. "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."

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About The Author

Steve Warren is a senior multimedia producer for CBN News. Warren has worked in the news departments of television stations and cable networks across the country. In addition, he also worked as a producer-director in television production and on-air promotion. A Civil War historian, he authored the book The Second Battle of Cabin Creek: Brilliant Victory. It was the companion book to the television documentary titled Last Raid at Cabin Creek currently streaming on Amazon Prime. He holds an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in Communication from the University of