Trio sue over religion, travel ban (read the lawsuit); governor responds

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BULLITT COUNTY, Ky. (WTVQ) – Three Kentuckians, one each from Bullitt, Boone (click to read lawsuit church lawsuit) and Rowan counties, including a recent Transylvania University graduate, have sued Gov. Andy Beshear, the state and county attorneys, claiming the governor’s travel ban and crackdown on in-person church services violate their constitutional rights.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, has been expected since state troopers attended the in-person service at Maryville Baptist Church in Bullitt County Sunday, wrote down license plate numbers and left notices on windshields mandating two-week quarantines.

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The lawsuit was filed by Theodore Joseph “T.J.” Roberts, a recent Transy grad who lives in Burlington, Ky. in Boone County, Randall Daniel, of Shepherdsville in Bullitt County, and Sally O’Boyle of Morehead in Rowan County.

It names Beshear, Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander, and Boone County Attorney Robert Nease on behalf of all the county attorneys in the state who would be charged with enforcing Beshear’s orders.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to issue an injunction blocking enforcement of the in-person gatherings order and Beshear’s travel ban, which also requires people coming into and staying in the state or leaving and coming back to quarantine for two weeks.

The orders all are part of the state’s efforts to slow and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

During his briefing Wednesday, Beshear touched on the lawsuit but didn’t address it directly.

“There are so many different ways to worship”‘ he said, “I am just asking them to choose one” that is safe.

The three church attendees acknowledge the dangers of the illness but say the orders go too far.

“Admittedly, COVID-19 presents a serious threat to public health and, equally admittedly, Defendants have a degree of discretion available to them to deal with this public health threat. Those tools, however, are not limitless. As the facts and circumstances in this Complaint reveal, Defendants have gone too far, and beyond the limits the Constitution permits,” states the lawsuit, filed by attorney Christopher Wiest, of Crestview Hills, Ky.
“Notably, of course, in times of public panic and fear, egregious violations of fundamental rights have been permitted throughout the history of this country,” the lawsuit continues, citing previous court rulings. Typically, it is only well after the fact that we have recognized the error of doing so.”

The lawsuit claims all three of the people had their religious rights violated by the in-person gathering ban because attending church is “central to their faith.”

They also allege Beshear has targeted only churches and not other groups, although the state has closed down 18 businesses fir violating the orders.

The three say they and others inside the church practiced social distancing, wore masks and took other steps to protect themselves and others and that they don’t habve the coronavirus and no others attending the service showed signs of it or have been dsgnosed with it.

They also say they don’t intend to quarantine and ordering them to do so violates their rights and spreads fear.

The same goes for the travel ban, which they say is tantamount to blocking interstate commerce.

“Defendants’ prohibition of drive-in church services in the name of enforcing social
distancing is not generally applicable. There are numerous exceptions to the orders that Defendants are not cracking down on, such as establishments like retail stores for essential goods, factory work in critical sectors, and other examples, where far more people come into contact…” the lawsuit charges.

“Laws and government actions that burden religious practice and are either not neutral or not generally applicable must satisfy a compelling governmental interest and be narrowly tailored to achieve that end. Defendants’ mandate is not “narrowly tailored” because the ban on in-person religious services is absolute, not accounting for services, like that attended by the Plaintiffs, where the
CDC and Kentucky Cabinet guidelines are carefully adhered to, and thus satisfy the public health concerns to which the guidelines are directed.
“Requiring Plaintiffs to abstain from religious gatherings, despite substantial modifications to satisfy the public health interests at stake, violates Plaintiffs’ Constitutional right to free exercise of their religion,” the lawsuit argues.
In addition to an injunction, the three want the lawsuit given class action status so it will apply to others in the state.

The state has not filed a response and no hearing date has been set.

PRIOR STORY POSTED TUESDAY, APRIL 14

BULLITT COUNTY, Ky. (WTVQ)- A Bullitt County church that held in-person Easter services, defying an order by Governor Andy Beshear, is threatening to sue the state.

About 50 church members at the Maryville Baptist Church attended services in person, despite an executive order from the governor not to gather in groups to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

State Police informed the church-goers their license plate was recorded and the health department would be contacting them about self-quarantining.

The church says it now plans to file a federal lawsuit, claiming it was targeted.

“To actually target individuals because the name on the outside of the building is a church rather than a Home Depot, Walmart, Kmart or Kroger is unconstitutional,” Liberty Counsel attorney Mathew Staver said.

Constitutional Attorney Mitchel Denham says the state constitution gives the governor the authority to disperse crowds during a state of emergency like a pandemic.

“…that chapter gives him very broad authority to limit gathering of this nature across the board,” Denham said.

This was the second time the church openly defied the governor’s order.

It held in-person services the Sunday before.

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Veronica Jean Seltzer joins ABC 36 as Anchor/Reporter. On most weekdays, you will see her reporting the news. VJ hails from a small horse farm outside New York City and most recently comes from South Bend, Indiana where she reported for the CBS and Fox affiliates. VJ holds a Master of Science in Journalism degree from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Tufts University. Her passion for journalism runs deep. It began as she studied graffiti as an ancient form of communication in Athens, Greece. While a student journalist in Morocco, she learned her most important journalistic lesson: good stories are about people. VJ loves life in and around Lexington. She feels most at home among horses and a diverse community of fascinating people. She enjoys reporting during the week and on the weekend she strives to bring her neighbors the news that matters most to them. VJ enjoys going to neighborhood events, exploring, horseback riding, skiing, sailing, and good movies. Look for her out and about in the community! VJ invites you to reach out to her with story ideas or just to say hello! Find her on Facebook at Veronica Jean Seltzer ABC 36, tweet her @VJS_ABC36, or email her at VSeltzer@wtvq.com. She looks forward to hearing from you!