Kentuckians who attended in-person church services on Easter had been warned: State police officers would be writing down license plate numbers and issuing self-quarantine orders to anyone who violated a ban on mass gatherings ordered by Governor Andy Beshear.
Despite that threat, about 50 people walked inside Maryville Baptist Church in Hillview, Kentucky, to worship on Sunday. Now three of them have filed a lawsuit against Beshear and other state officials, claiming their constitutional rights are being violated. The plaintiffs say they received quarantine notices after following their “sincerely held religious beliefs that in-person church attendance was required, particularly on Easter Sunday.”
Plaintiffs Say They Followed Precautions
In the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, plaintiffs Randall Daniel, T.J. Roberts, and Sally O’Boyle say Kentucky’s action “specifically and explicitly targeted in-person religious gatherings.” They maintain that they followed CDC guidelines during worship, such as wearing masks and practicing social-distancing measures. In addition, they say no one at the Easter service had been diagnosed with the coronavirus or was exhibiting any symptoms.
The three plaintiffs say Kentucky isn’t enforcing similar orders at stores, factories, and other sites “where far more people come into closer contact with less oversight” than at churches. Because the quarantine can’t be appealed, plaintiffs also say they’re being deprived of due process. The purpose of the lawsuit, according to court documents, is to have Kentucky’s pandemic-related orders deemed unconstitutional and to prohibit their enforcement.
Gov. Beshear issued a ban March 19 on all mass gatherings. Before Easter, he announced that state troopers would be identifying violators at churches, but he emphasized that “no one is being charged with anything.” Beshear also promised not to “padlock doors or arrest pastors.”
The governor has said, “I’m just doing my best to save lives,” and “We just need people to do the right thing.” Large gatherings, he says, “send out a signal all around the country to those that don’t think this virus is serious.” The vast majority of churches, Beshear adds, have “chosen to do the right thing.”
The Legal Battle in Kentucky
Maryville Baptist was the only Kentucky church that violated state orders on Easter, according to Gov. Beshear. His order permitted drive-in services, which also were offered Sunday in Maryville’s parking lot. Worshipers who attended church that way while remaining in their vehicles didn’t receive quarantine notices.
The Rev. Jack Roberts, Maryville’s pastor, had said he wouldn’t tell congregants whether or not to obey the state order. “Everybody has to do what they feel comfortable with,” he says. The pastor insists that he’s “not interested in trying to defy the government.” Rather, he believes his congregation has a constitutional right to continue holding in-person worship services. “If you read the Constitution of the United States,” Roberts says, “if you read the constitution of the state of Kentucky, they both say that [Beshear] is infringing on the church’s rights.”
Though Roberts and several other Easter attendees covered their license plates, troopers merely wrote down VIN numbers instead. The pastor also said piles of nails had been placed at the entrances to Maryville’s parking lots. Now Roberts has established a legal defense fund to help cover costs of the plaintiffs from his church.
Andy Beshear Receives Pushback from Republicans
Beshear, a Democrat, has faced criticism from Kentucky’s Republican leaders. Senator Rand Paul, who’s recovering from the virus, tweeted on Good Friday: “Taking license plates at church? Quarantining someone for being Christian on Easter Sunday? Someone needs to take a step back here.”
After Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, threatened to ban drive-in worship services in his city, Kentucky’s other U.S. Senator, Mitch McConnell, wrote him a letter, saying that “religious people should not be singled out for disfavored treatment.” McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, noted, “To my knowledge, the government has not imposed similar wholesale bans on gatherings of people in vehicles for commercial purposes.”
The day before Easter, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron tweeted: “I encourage all Kentuckians to social distance and celebrate Easter in their homes, as I’ll be doing. I am, however, deeply concerned that our law enforcement officers are being asked to single out religious services. Directing a uniformed presence at church services to record the identity of worshippers and to force a quarantine, while doing no such thing for the people gathered at retail stores or obtaining an abortion, is the definition of arbitrary.”