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Judge rules Gov. Beshear can't stop in-person classes at private religious schools

Governor Beshear argued his order was neutral since it applied to both public and private schools; a federal judge disagreed.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — As part of Governor Andy Beshear's new restrictions put in place last week to slow the surge of COVID-19 cases in Kentucky, he ordered all public and private schools to close to in-person classes. 

Wednesday, a federal judge ruled Gov. Beshear cannot keep private religious schools from in-person learning.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove said the governor has a right to require all schools to take some measures, such as social distancing, limiting class sizes and wearing masks. "But in an effort to do the right thing to fight the virus, the Governor cannot do the wrong thing by infringing protected values," Judge Van Tatenhove said.

The governor's order stopped all in-person learning for all public and private K-12 schools in Kentucky beginning November 23. Middle and high schools are to continue remote learning through January 4 and elementary schools may reopen on December 7 if they are not in a 'red zone' county.

Shortly after the governor announced his order last week, Attorney General Daniel Cameron and several other schools joined a lawsuit by Danville Christian Academy which sought a restraining order against the governor's order. They claim his order to close in-person learning violates the First Amendment and the state’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.

Gov. Beshear argued his order was neutral since it applied to both public and private schools.

Following the judge's ruling, a spokesperson from the governor's office released a statement saying, “We are disappointed but not surprised that Judge Van Tatenhove, for the second time, has refused to acknowledge the U.S. Supreme Court decision that found an action like this is both legal and constitutional. We have already appealed to the Sixth Circuit and will request an emergency stay of the judge’s order, and, if necessary, will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s be clear: lives are on the line and everyone must do their part to defeat the virus.” 

Cameron released a statement after the judge's ruling:

"On the day before Thanksgiving, I am incredibly thankful for the timeless and enduring protections enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. More than 200 years ago, our founders answered the question presented to the court in this case by protecting the free exercise of religion, and today, the court firmly upheld that guarantee by recognizing that Kentuckians have a right to worship and express their faith through a religious education.

“The court prohibited the Governor from enforcing his executive order and unequivocally stated that the Commonwealth’s religious schools can resume in-person learning. This is not the first time during this pandemic where religious exercise has been threatened, first with the prohibition on drive-in church services, then in-person worship services, and now in-person instruction at religious schools.

“In each of these instances, 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. Our country was built on the idea of religious freedom and will always be a place of refuge for those of faith. 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.”

Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers said: “We are in total agreement that during this time of pandemic taking action to save lives is necessary, but it also needs to be done in a proper manner. We agree wholeheartedly with the decision by the U.S. District Court to strike down the portion of Governor Beshear’s executive order requiring private, religious-based schools to halt in-person instruction as a violation of constitutional rights.

We understand that safety precautions need to be taken during this pandemic, but our frustration with the Governor’s orders arise when his language is vague, conflicting on its face, and is inconsistently applied. Going against the advice of those organizations from whom he has cited throughout the pandemic is completely inconsistent, and any future orders should not throw the constitutional rights of Kentuckians by the wayside.

The Governor was misguided with this order, and its direction runs counter to those groups whose guidance he claims to follow. Just this week, the CDC publicly stated that the safest place for our children to be, because of the strict safety guidelines that must be followed, is in the classroom.”

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