Attorney General Threatens to Sue Over Governor's Order on Church Gatherings
This story has been updated to include comments from Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron on Tuesday asked Governor Andy Beshear to end what Cameron referred to as "targeting of faith-based gatherings" amid the global pandemic.
Church gatherings are included among the mass gatherings to be avoided as part of the social-distancing strategy deployed by the governor to slow the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus which has infected more than 4,000 people in Kentucky and killed more than 200.
Cameron said Tuesday that in-person church gatherings should be allowed to resume, consistent with recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of the virus.
Cameron said that if Beshear does not immediately rescind his executive orders, he will file a lawsuit over what he sees as a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“The First Amendment provides the citizens of this country with the specific, enumerated right to practice their religious beliefs, free from targeting and discrimination,” said Cameron. “By specifically banning faith-based mass gatherings while allowing other secular organizations and activities to continue operation, Gov. Beshear has deliberately targeted religious groups. This pattern of targeting continued when the Governor ordered state police to track the license plates of those who attended a faith-based gathering on Easter Sunday, and it continues even this week as he allows some businesses to resume operations.”
Cameron argued Tuesday that Beshear's March 19 executive order prohibits mass gatherings like those at churches while allowing exemptions for "secular organizations and activities, including typical office environments, factories, and retail or grocery stores."
The order acknowledges that even though these types of secular activities involve the presence of groups of people, they should be allowed to continue so long as individuals “maintain appropriate social distancing.” The order provides no such exemption or accommodation for faith-based gatherings.
“Kentucky law gives the governor broad power during a state of emergency, but it does not give him the power to violate the First Amendment by discriminating against faith-based practices,” said Cameron. “We cannot, in good faith, move forward from this health crisis together if we have allowed faith-based groups to be unfairly targeted during the process. Governor Beshear should immediately rescind the executive orders targeting faith-based gatherings, and, if he doesn't, then we will be forced to file a lawsuit and allow a judge to determine whether his order, as it pertains to religious groups, is constitutional."
Cameron's office filed amicus briefs in to ongoing federal court cases over the governor's order.
Beshear responded to Cameron's comments during the governor's daily press briefing about the coronavirus pandemic.
"We banned all mass gatherings. No one is singled out at all there," Beshear said. The governor said that early rulings by a judge indicated that "everything we have done is legal."
Beshear also said that Kentucky has continued to permit virtual and drive-in church services.
"I'm not trying to set rules that are difficult. I'm not trying to set rules that are controversial," Beshear said. "I'm just trying to set rules that save people's lives."
-Michael Monks, editor & publisher