UPDATE: 'Victory for Religious Freedom': Appeals Court's Saturday Ruling Protects Kentucky Church's Drive-In Services
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A three-judge panel of the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Maryville Baptist Church can hold drive-in church services, but did not lift the governor’s ban on in-person church meetings.
The religious rights law group Liberty Counsel, which represents the church and its pastor Dr. Jack Roberts, sued Gov. Beshear after Kentucky State Police handed out warnings of criminal violation during Maryville's Easter Sunday 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.
The Court of Appeals indicated those actions are a likely violation of the church's rights to free exercise of religion under the US Constitution and Kentucky law but declined to make a broad ruling citing that it would need more time.
According to court documents, "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 enforce 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.'."
And the Court of Appeals questioned Gov. Beshear's stance toward other businesses such as liquor stores and laundromats who 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."
BREAKING NEWS! Liberty Counsel won an emergency injunction from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals prohibiting the enforcement of @GovAndyBeshear COVID orders against church services at Maryville Baptist Church and Pastor Dr. Jack Roberts.https://t.co/ZzavJmhyAz pic.twitter.com/Vuip0AW231— Liberty Counsel (@libertycounsel) May 2, 2020
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," Staver added.
While the governor’s office says his order does not ban drive-in services, the appeals court said he did not make a specific exception for drive-in services, according to Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper.
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