Dec 17, 2020 - Health

Supreme Court denies religious school challenge to Kentucky's COVID-19 restrictions

Photo of a masked Andy Beshear speaking to press at a loading dock

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (right). Photo: Jon Cherry via Getty

The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to block Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive order halting in-person instruction at most K-12 schools, including religious schools, through the end of the year, noting that the order "effectively expires this week or shortly thereafter."

Why it matters: The decision follows several cases that examined whether state coronavirus restrictions affecting religious institutions, including places of worship violate, the First Amendment.

Background: Beshear, a Democrat, signed the executive order last month.

  • It required most Kentucky K-12 schools, including religious schools, to move to virtual classes until at least Jan. 4. Some elementary schools not in the state's hardest-hit counties were allowed to reopen earlier this month, provided they followed state guidelines.
  • Danville Christian Academy, along with Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Republican, sued the governor, arguing his executive order violated the First Amendment and treated schools worse than the restaurants, bars and gyms that were allowed to remain open with restrictions.
  • A district court initially agreed with Danville Christian Academy and Cameron.
  • But the Sixth Circuit rejected the lower court's ruling, finding no religious discrimination.

What they're saying: "Under all of the circumstances, especially the timing and the impending expiration of the Order, we deny the application without prejudice to the applicants or other parties seeking a new preliminary injunction if the Governor issues a school-closing order that applies in the new year," the Supreme Court wrote in its brief, unsigned ruling.

  • It noted that "The Governor’s school-closing Order effectively expires this week or shortly thereafter, and there is no indication that it will be renewed."
  • Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch publicly dissented, saying they would have vacated "the Sixth Circuit’s stay of the preliminary injunction issued by the District Court and remand for further consideration in light of the proper legal standards."

Gov. Beshear said at his daily coronavirus news conference on Thursday that “in no way were religious schools treated any differently, we asked everybody to make the same sacrifice.”

  • He added that because of his executive order and other steps taken, "we see ... it having stopped an exponential growth that was threatening our hospital capacity. The things we’ve put into place have worked."
  • "I hope when we know things will work, everybody will say in the future, 'we will do our part.'"

Attorney General Cameron said in a statement that "even though today’s order didn’t go the way many Kentucky parents hoped, the U.S. Supreme Court’s order should give the Governor pause before he take other executive action related to closing religious schools."

  • "While the Court chose not to take immediate action because the Governor’s order expires soon, the Court in no way endorsed the Governor’s unconstitutional targeting of religious schools."

The big picture: Kentucky, like several other U.S. states, has seen a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

  • Beshear announced 54 new deaths on Thursday, a single-day record, and 3,349 new confirmed COVID-19 cases.
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