A federal judge overturned part of a government decree by Andy Beshear, the governor of Kentucky, that requires private and public schools to stop personal classes by early January amid the latest wave of COVID-19 cases.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled on Wednesday that the governor’s order could not be applied to private, religious-based schools across the state because it violated their constitutional rights. However, the order may remain in effect for public schools.
“If social isolation is good enough for offices, colleges and universities within the Commonwealth, it is good enough for religious K-12 private schools that enjoy constitutional protection,” Van Tatenhove wrote in the resolution. “Finally”[t]The first amendment protects the right of religious institutions “to decide for themselves on matters of ecclesiastical government and of faith and doctrine without the intervention of the state.”
As such, Beshear is “forced to comply with the ban on personal education for any religious private school in Kentucky that adheres to applicable social distance and hygiene guidelines,” the decision said.
Crystal Staley, a spokesman for Beshear, said his office had already filed an appeal for the sixth round, would ask for an urgent suspension of the judge’s order and, if necessary, file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Let’s be clear: lives are on the line and everyone has to play their part in defeating the virus,” Staley said.
Primary schools not located in the “red” counties, which have an average of 25 or more new cases of coronavirus per 100,000 inhabitants, may resume personal classes on December 7, provided they follow the state’s “Healthy School” guidelines, on Beshear’s orders .
Danville Christian Academy, a Boyle County school serving 234 students in preschool through 12th grade, and Attorney General Daniel Cameron of Kentucky last week filed a lawsuit against Beshear to seek a state-wide temporary ban on personal classes.
The lawsuit, filed Nov. 20 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, argued that Beshear’s enforcement order violated the First Amendment as well as the state’s Restoration of Religious Freedom Act.
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Lawyers at Cameron and Danville Christian Academy also questioned why private schools should close following public health guidelines to hold personal classes safely in a pandemic if places such as e.g. Shopping malls, childcare centers, offices and movie theaters.
Lawyers for the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, who represented the Danville school, believed that personal classes should not stop when many religious-based schools are affiliated with churches that are able to hold personal worship services on an ongoing basis.
In addition, the Boyle County Department of Health was said to have noted that the Danville Christian Academy is “doing well” by introducing safety standards for personal classes.
“The court acknowledged that Governor Beshear’s order banning religious schools from holding personal classes is beyond his authority and violates the First Amendment,” said Roger Byron, senior adviser to First Liberty after the decision. “We are grateful that the court has restored the rule of law. The CDC made it clear that students are the safest when they go to school, and the Danville Christian Academy has implemented extensive safety protocols approved by local health officials. ”
Van Tatenhove ruled this summer. Beshear could not prevent the churches from holding personal worship services during the pandemic.
“We are disappointed, but we are not surprised that Judge Van Tatenhove has, for the second time, refused to recognize the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that such an act is legal and constitutional,” Staley said Wednesday night.
Van Tatenhove’s new decision follows about two weeks after the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously upheld Beshear’s authority to issue enforcement orders in a public health emergency.
On November 18, Beshear issued a school-related order and introduced new restrictions that will apply until mid-December to restaurants, bars, gyms, offices, indoor gatherings, weddings and funerals.
The governor said the new orders are needed to try to curb the third wave of coronavirus cases in Kentucky, which has reported more than 160,000 viral cases and 1,800 deaths since March.
The Commonwealth has broken gloomy records of the new daily case count for the past week, with health officials warning of refilling hospitals and new infections due to Thanksgiving.
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According to the governor and his legal team, the ban on private lessons does not violate the religious freedoms of private schools because it also applies to public schools.
But Van Tatenhove wrote that Beshear’s argument is inconsistent with his earlier opinion in the Sixth District this year on whether Maryville Baptist Church can hold personal worship in Bullitt County.
“The Court wonders why, under this Implementing Regulation, it would be free to attend a lecture, work or concert, but not at a school in a socially segregated chapel or to pray together in a classroom with strict security procedures and social distance. ”Van Tatenhove wrote in his verdict on Wednesday.
Several Republican leaders in the General Assembly responded to the new orders by promising to restrain Beshear and limit its powers in early 2021 with new legislation.
Nine additional Christian schools, more than 1,000 parents, and Allison Ball, the Kentucky Secretary of the Treasury, also filed a briefing to support Danville Christian Academy in its lawsuit.
A group of Christian private schools, churches and parents also followed the leadership of Danville Christian Academy by suing Beshear for banning personal classes and for restricting indoor social gatherings to eight or fewer people from two separate households.
“No one is saying a 10-member family can’t live together and eat together anymore,” Beshear said Tuesday. “What we’re saying is if one family wants to have another family, there are only two households – two groups living under the same roof – and there are a total of eight people in that group.”
“It is ridiculous to suggest that we could not have dinner with a large family,” the governor continued. “And I know there are lawyers who just itch about the fights or want to report news, but it’s silent, and we don’t have to consider these types of distractions with what we’re trying to save lives. And we’re doing it. We’ve saved lives.”
The continuation of personal classes has been the subject of debate across the country and around the world in recent months.
In Kentucky, with the exception of a few of the state’s 120 counties, they have been placed in the “red” zone because of the higher number of cases per 100,000 residents, and local schools have switched to distance learning in response to security concerns.
“There is plenty of scientific evidence that Covid-19 is exceptionally contagious,” Van Tatenhove wrote in his judgment. “But there is no evidence that the risk of infection has increased in a religious setting, not just in a secular setting, or in K-12 schools, as opposed to kindergartens, universities, or colleges.”
But U.S. school leaders, elected officials, parents and teachers say the virus is spreading in communities and eventually entering the classroom, resulting in understaffing and self-quarantine among students.
Supporters of Danville Christian Academy and other schools seeking to pursue personal lessons refer to last week’s remarks from a director of the Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Robert Redfield told a White House coronavirus task force on Nov. 19 that K-12 schools “can learn face-to-face and do it safely and responsibly.”
“The truth is, one of the safest places for K-12 kids to stay in our school is,” Redfield said. “And it’s very important that – following the data, making sure we don’t make emotional decisions about what we close and what we don’t.”
Van Tatenhove quoted Redfield’s remarks in Wednesday’s verdict, in which writing Beshear’s enforcement order “also appears to run counter to the CDC’s recommendations”.
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Emma Austin, a journalist for the Courier Journal, contributed to this article.
Contact Billy Kobin at [email protected]