Apr 20, 2020

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky to protect Kentucky residents from the spread of COVID-19 by allowing a public health order banning large gatherings to remain in place without exemptions for religious services.

Americans United filed an amicus brief late last night in Roberts v. Neace, explaining that it is not only permissible for Kentucky to include houses of worship and religious services in the temporary ban of large, in-person gatherings, but it would be unconstitutional to exempt religious gatherings from the order.

The U.S. Constitution makes clear that religious exemptions can be granted only if they won’t cause harm to others. A religious exemption from Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s order would endanger the public health because COVID-19 can spread as easily at religious gatherings as it does at secular gatherings, and it can spread well beyond the people who participate in these events. An exemption also would unconstitutionally grant special privileges to religious activities.

“As we’ve already seen in Kentucky and across the country, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between religious and secular gatherings – it spreads easily at both, putting the health of entire communities at risk,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “Gov. Beshear’s public health order does not violate religious freedom; it ensures religious freedom is not misused to risk people’s lives. We sympathize with people of faith who find solace in religious services during such challenging times and applaud the faith communities that are finding creative new ways to worship together virtually. We will get through this crisis together, even if not in person.” 

The plaintiffs in this case attend Maryville Baptist Church, which unsuccessfully attempted to overturn Beshear’s order in a separate lawsuit. On Saturday, U.S. District Judge David Hale in the Western District of Kentucky refused to block the state’s ban on large gatherings, explaining that arguments for a religious exemption from the ban were unlikely to succeed.

“The constitutional guarantee of religious freedom protects the right to practice the faith of one’s choice,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United. “It also protects others from being harmed in the name of this precious freedom. Gov. Beshear’s order respects both public health and religious freedom.”

AU’s Amicus Brief in Roberts v. Neace.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.