Pleasant View Baptist Church v. Beshear
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear shuttered in-person teaching at K-12 schools, forcing private religious schools to stop meeting in person even if they were successfully following all public health recommendations regarding masking and social distancing. At the same time, however, the Governor allowed daycares, college classrooms, casinos, movie theatres, gyms, and factories to continue operating in person while limiting the spread of COVID through other means. In response, a coalition of churches, faith-based schools, and parents sued the Governor in federal court for unfairly targeting religious education amid the pandemic.
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Faithful education in the Bluegrass State
Kentucky is home to an array of faith-based schools that exist to help students harness the skills they need to thrive and grow deeper in faith. Many of these schools operate as ministries of their churches, including Pleasant View Baptist School, Veritas Christian School, and Micah Christian School. As part of their mission to provide children with an education in their faith, these schools teach religion in the classroom and hold chapel services for their students. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky’s faith-based schools were diligent in implementing significant and costly measures to stop the spread of the virus, including social distancing, temperature checks, and mask wearing.
Governor Beshear targets faith-based schools
Eight months after the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S., Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear issued two executive orders. The first required all elementary, middle, and high schools—including private religious schools—to stop in-person instruction and transition to virtual learning. In contrast, the second allowed other businesses, like daycares, preschools, colleges, factories, gyms, bowling allies, theaters, and casinos, to continue to operate in person so long as they followed public health guidance.
This unequal treatment was particularly troubling for private religious schools. The Governor’s actions denied religious communities the ability to pass down their faith to the next generation of believers. It also kept religious schoolchildren from vital in person chapel services, religious instruction, and other communal events that cannot be translated to an on-line format. The Governor’s rules led to absurd results: a church could offer Sunday School classes on Sunday and open a daycare on Monday, but if it used the same classrooms—and the same public health measures—to operate a religious school, it could face criminal penalties and fines. It also meant that kids could go to the movies and teachers go gambling, but neither could go to school.
Worse, the Governor was a repeat offender. He had already been slapped down twice by federal courts for shuttering religious ministries while allow secular entities to continue operating. And just after his order came out, the Supreme Court barred the governor of New York from doing the same thing to Jewish synagogues and Catholic churches. Yet Governor Beshear issued his new order closing religious schools and kept enforcing it even after the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Vindicating religious education in Kentucky
On November 23, 2020, a group of churches, religious schools and individual parents filed a lawsuit against Governor Beshear, challenging his restrictions on faith-based education. They argue that the governor’s actions unlawfully treat religious activity worse than other activities that posed the same risk of spreading COVID-19.
The district court ruled that the governor’s actions were protected by qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that can shield public officials from legal liability. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling. In September of 2023, the coalition of churches, schools, and parents, asked the court to reconsider the case in front of a full panel of judges. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a rehearing, arguing that the court’s ruling violated its prior decisions and Supreme Court decisions.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
- Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened.