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Does Gov. Beshear have the power to close religious schools?

Posted at 6:06 PM, Nov 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-24 10:38:10-05

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — On November 18, Gov. Andy Beshear ordered all public and private K-12 schools to "cease in-person instruction and move to remote learning" as the state battles a significant rise in COVID-19 cases.

Shortly after the new COVID-19 restriction was announced, Gov. Beshear was sued by Danville Christian Academy and Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Cameron's office said the lawsuit is asking the court "to issue a statewide temporary restraining order against the Governor’s latest unconstitutional order banning in-person instruction at religious schools."

On November 23rd, a hearing was held in federal court. Lawyers from the Attorney General's Office and Danville Christian Academy argued that the governor's order violates the First Amendment and the Commonwealth’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.

"Gov. Beshear’s order violates the law, oversteps the constitution," said Roger Byron, one of the lawyers representing Danville Christian Academy.

"Danville Christian Academy is first and foremost a religious organization whose driving purpose and mission is to bring its students closer to Jesus Christ," said Byron. "And they also, as part of that mission - but just as a part - offer academic instruction. It’s their core belief, in accordance with the bible, that they are not to forsake assembling together - that the communal environment, the togetherness of Christian education is an absolutely fundamental and essential part of fulfilling its religious mission."

The Attorney General's Office argued that religious schools are owed the same first amendment protections other religious institutions are given.

"We believe that the first amendment protections given to churches, and to synagogues, and to mosques are no different than the first amendment protections given to religious schools throughout Kentucky," said deputy attorney general Barry Dunn.

Gov. Beshear's general counsel argued that Danville Christian Academy is asking for special rights during a public health crisis.

"No one is trying to infringe upon religious belief. We are treating all schools neutrally," said Amy Cubbage, the governor's general counsel. "What the plaintiffs are asking for is special rights. All schools should be treated the same."

Cubbage explained that the orders are meant to stop the spread of COVID-19 during a dangerous increase in positive cases. She said it was important to act before hospitals get overwhelmed, and more lives are lost.

"It is a dangerous time in the Commonwealth, and they’re only out of concern for that," said Cubbage. "We don’t want to have to wait until we are like El Paso and have morgue trucks pulled up and the National Guard carrying bodies out."

According to the Attorney General's Office, nine other religious schools and more than 1,000 Kentucky parents have filed amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit. The schools are Bourbon Christian Academy in Paris, Foundation Christian Academy in Bowling Green, Heritage Christian School in Owensboro, Kentucky Christian Academy in Campbellsville, Lexington Christian Academy, Lexington Latin School, Somerset Christian School, Summit Christian Academy in Lexington, and Trinity Christian Academy in Lexington.