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Judge Rules Beshear Can’t Stop Religious Schools From Holding In-Person Classes

J. Tyler Franklin

A federal judge has blocked Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive order halting in-person classes at private religious schools. Beshear issued the executive order last week, closing both public and private K-12 schools to in-person classes as a way to curb a surge of the coronavirus.

One private school, Danville Christian Academy, sued, backed by Attorney General Daniel Cameron, saying the governor infringed on the community’s First Amendment right to freedom of religion. In a Wednesday ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove agreed Beshear had overstepped.

“In an effort to do the right thing to fight the virus, the Governor cannot do the wrong thing by infringing protected values,” Van Tatenhove wrote. He granted Danville Christian Academy’s request for a preliminary injunction, blocking the school closure order from taking effect on private religious schools across the state until the court issues a full ruling.

Van Tatenhove said he believes the school is “likely to succeed on the merits of this case.”

Drawing on a Sixth Circuit Court ruling siding with Maryville Baptist Church over coronavirus restrictions on churches earlier this year, Van Tatenhove found Beshear’s restrictions were not evenly applied, or narrowly tailored.

“This Court wonders why under this executive order, one would be free to attend a lecture, go to work, or attend a concert, but not attend socially distanced chapel in school or pray together in a classroom that is following strict safety procedures and social distancing,” the judge wrote.

“Of even more significance, preschools in the state remain open…as do colleges and universities,” the ruling reads. “Neither Dr. Stack nor the Governor have adequately explained why K-12 schools must close while these other institutions, where many children and young adults who live at home may still expose family members to Covid-19, can remain open.”

He also pointed to recent comments by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director Robert Redfield calling schools “the safest places [kids] can be.”

Van Tatenhove expanded the injunction from Danville Christian Academy to all private religious schools in the state, granting the request of state Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

These schools must still adhere to social distancing and hygiene guidelines under the order.

In an emailed statement, Cameron praised the ruling.

“The courts have affirmed that the freedoms provided by our Constitution are stronger than the fears of the moment and cannot be cast aside by the Governor or any leader,” he wrote. “This pandemic reminds us now, more than ever, of the importance of faith and the reassurance and stability it provides for many in the midst of challenging times.”

The injunction is subject to appeal.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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