A federal judge ruled Friday that all Kentucky churches will be allowed to hold in-person gatherings beginning this weekend so long as congregations abide by social distancing and other health guidelines from the CDC.
Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky, filed a lawsuit against Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, this week to allow for in-person worship services. The church's attorney said Beshear's order prohibiting in-person services violates the First Amendment.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove agreed — at least for now.
According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Van Tatenhove granted a temporary restraining order that prevents Beshear from "enforcing the prohibition on mass gatherings with respect to any in-person religious service which adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines."
In his court opinion, Van Tatenhove wrote:
Tabernacle Baptist Church wants to gather for corporate worship. They want to freely exercise their deeply held religious belief about what it means to be a faithful Christian. For them, it is "essential" that they do so. And they want to invoke the Constitution's protection on this point.
But the governor, by executive order, has put a stop to that. He can do that, but he must have a compelling reason for using his authority to limit a citizen's right to freely exercise something we value greatly—the right of every American to follow their conscience on matters related to religion. Despite an honest motive, it does not appear at this preliminary stage that reason exists.
The judge also cited how notoriously crowded grocery and hardware stores have been during the coronavirus pandemic. If social distancing is sufficient for those businesses, then it should also be sufficient for places of worship, he said.
"There is ample scientific evidence that COVID-19 is exceptionally contagious. But evidence that the risk of contagion is heightened in a religious setting any more than a secular one is lacking," Van Tatenhove wrote. "If social distancing is good enough for Home Depot and Kroger, it is good enough for in-person religious services which, unlike the foregoing, benefit from constitutional protection."
The ruling applies to all churches and places of worship in Kentucky, WKYT-TV reported.