Danville Christian Academy v. Beshear
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky Governor Beshear on November 18, 2020, closed K-12 classrooms, forcing all private religious schools to engage in online-only instruction. At the same time, however, he has allowed secular institutions—like theatres, offices, and even gambling venues—to continue operating in-person at reduced capacity. And he allowed both pre-kindergarten and college-age students to continue with in-person instruction. On November 30, 2020, Danville Christian Academy, a religious primarily and secondary school, filed an emergency application at the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to safely continue in-person instructions for its K-12 students and to protect the school from the Governor’s arbitrary decision to only close primarily and secondary schools, while permitting other larger group gatherings. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Danville Christian, arguing that the Governor’s order must be subject to stringent judicial review because it interferes with the fundamental right of parents to direct the religious education of their children.
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Preserving public health while pursuing academic excellence
Danville Christian Academy, located in Danville, Kentucky, is a Christian educational institution serving students from preschool through grade 12. The mission of Danville Christian is “to mold Christ-like scholars, leaders, and servants who will advance the Kingdom of God.” In order to do so, Danville Christian believes that “its students should be educated with a Christian worldview in a communal, in-person environment.”
In response to COVID-19, Danville Christian Academy has gone to great lengths to ensure the health and safety of students and families, as well as the broader community, by following the recommendations of local and national health officials. Over the summer, the school spent over $20,000 implementing safety procedures and equipping its facilities for safe, in-person instruction. As a result of Danville Christian’s rigorous efforts, since reopening in August, only a handful of students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19, thus confirming that the school’s strict health and safety precautions have been working.
Denying educational opportunities
On November 18, 2020, eight months after the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear issued two executive orders. The first required all elementary, middle, and high schools to cease in-person instruction and transition to virtual learning. In stark contrast, the second issued guidance permitting most other in-person activities and indoor gatherings to continue, with certain capacity restrictions. Those businesses permitted to remain open included daycares, preschools, colleges and universities, and even gyms, bowling allies, theaters, and gambling venues such as racetracks.
As a result of this unequal treatment, retailers saw large Black Friday crowds and the University of Louisville has played football games in front of crowds numbering in the thousands. Meanwhile school-aged students, who are at a reduced risk of contracting and transmitting the COVID-19 virus, are kept from vital in-person instruction—despite the fact that all classes at Danville Christian would satisfy the same 25-person capacity restrictions imposed on certain other businesses.
The result of the Governor’s unequal treatment of schools is even more troubling for private religious schools. The Governor’s actions deny religious communities the right to effectively pass down their faith to the next generation of believers. At Danville Christian, for instance, students are missing out on in-person chapel services, religious instruction, and other communal events that cannot be translated into an on-line format. In July 2020, the Supreme Court emphasized the fundamental right of religious communities to pass on the faith to the next generation through religious education in its decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe v. Morrissey-Berru. The Court’s opinion specifically highlighted “the close connection that religious institutions draw between their central purpose and educating the young in the faith,” the very interest raised here.
Vindicating the right to religious education
On November 20, 2020, Danville Christian Academy filed a lawsuit against Governor Beshear, challenging his restrictions on religious education. The federal district court ruled in favor of Danville Christian, but Governor Beshear appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which permitted enforcement of the Governor’s order.
On November 30, 2020, Danville Christian Academy filed an emergency application with the Supreme Court to protect it from the Governor’s arbitrary closure of only primary and secondary schools, while permitting other larger group gatherings. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Danville Christian arguing that the Governor’s order must be subject to stringent judicial review because it interferes with the fundamental right of parents to direct the religious education of their children.
On December 17, 2020, the Supreme Court denied Danville Christian’s request for emergency relief, citing the “timing and impending expiration” of Kentucky’s school closing order. The Court’s opinion nevertheless noted the important First Amendment interests at stake, and highlighted the constitutionally protected parental rights raised in Becket’s brief.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Religious Communities: Religious groups have the right to form their own institutions and to pass their teachings down to the next generation. Schools like Danville Christian Academy, which exist to transmit the Christian faith to the next generation, are constitutionally protected from government restrictions that deny them their fundamental right to provide religious education.