Pleasant View Baptist Church v. Beshear

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.  

On October 3, 2023, the Sixth Circuit denied rehearing the case. 

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.  

Danville Christian Academy v. Beshear

Preserving public health while pursuing academic excellence  

Danville Christian Academy, located in Danville, Kentucky, is 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-19thus 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 learningIn 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 alliestheaters, 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 202020, 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.  

New Doe Child # 1 v. The Congress of the United States (Sixth Circuit)

“God” is not a dirty word

God is not a dirty word. The Founders believed this and courts have continually upheld their view.

Yet atheist activist Dr. Michael Newdow has sued again and again to scrub “God” from the public square. For years, he has repeatedly attacked our national motto, “In God We Trust,” by suing the government. The motto is based on the national anthem and first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864. So far, his lawsuits have all been rejected.

Newdow’s latest two lawsuits in his crusade against the word God are in the Sixth Circuit and Eighth Circuit courts of appeals. In each case, he has led a group of atheists claiming that the national motto violates their practice of atheism under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief to defend the government’s use of “In God We Trust” in both cases.

Becket’s Sixth Circuit amicus brief, filed in February 2017, stated: “Plaintiffs want to have it both ways. They want to reject any notion of religious belief and transcendent truth and yet call it an ‘exercise of religion.’ Neither the English language nor the law can stretch that far.”

“In God We Trust” does not violate the First Amendment

In April 2017, Becket filed an amicus brief in the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, Missouri. In that case, Newdow argued not only that the motto violates atheists’ religious freedom, but that it establishes a religion as well. Becket’s amicus brief countered those arguments, explaining that for the Founders who wrote the First Amendment, an “establishment of religion” meant an official state church with government funding, government control, and fusion of church and state – and that honoring our nation’s religious heritage on our coinage is not one of them. The brief states, “Virginia’s earliest settlers attended twice-daily services on pain of losing daily rations, whipping, and six months of hard-labor imprisonment … . The motto’s presence on currency, of course, does not involve church attendance, compulsory or otherwise.”

These are not the first cases to consider the national motto, which has been upheld in court before. In 2014, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Newdow’s argument that the national motto violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause by “establishing a monotheistic religion.” Becket filed an amicus brief defending the motto, arguing that it is not an establishment of religion to simply pay tribute to our nation’s religious heritage.

Newdow’s lawsuits are an attempt to create a heckler’s veto for atheists—a chance for anyone who disagrees with the government to dictate what it can say about our nation’s history. Becket’s briefs explain to the courts that if Newdow succeeds here, church-state conflict will balloon, and we will see a lot more litigation against God around the country.

Court protects “In God We Trust”

The Sixth Circuit heard oral argument in June 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Newdow and the Department of Justice argued on each side. On May 29, 2018, a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit ruled 2-1 against the challenge to the national motto. On August 8, 2018, the Sixth Circuit denied en banc review.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public squareReligion is a natural part of human culture and has a natural place in the public square. “God” is not a dirty word, and paying tribute to our nation’s heritage in a national motto does not violate the First Amendment. 

Baker v. Hands On Originals

A Christian printer ordered to violate his faith

Blaine Adamson owns Hands On Originals, a small screen printing shop in Kentucky that creates promotional materials like shirts, hats, blankets, and mugs. Blaine serves everyone regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation. But he doesn’t print messages that are contrary to his faith, such as messages promoting violence. As printers across the country have agreed, it is standard industry practice for printers to decline messages that contradict their core beliefs. Blaine has operated this way for years without a problem.

Until 2012, when the Gay and Lesbian Services Organizations (GLSO) asked Blaine to create t-shirts promoting the local Pride Festival. Because the message of the t-shirts conflicted with Blaine’s religious beliefs, he offered to connect GLSO with other printers who would match his price. GLSO received numerous offers to print the t-shirts and ultimately received them for free. But GLSO filed a complaint with the local human rights commission, which ordered Blaine to print the shirts and attend “diversity training” to change his views.

Support from the LGBT community

Two different Kentucky courts have ruled that this sort of coercion is illegal. Blaine has also received strong support from the printing industry and LGBT business owners.

“This isn’t a gay or straight issue. This is a human issue. No one really should be forced to do something against what they believe in. It’s as simple as that,” said Kathy Trautvertter & Diane DiGeloromo of BMP T-shirts.

Becket defends Blaine’s free speech

The human rights commission has now appealed the case to the Kentucky Supreme Court. In February 2018, Becket and University of Virginia Law Professor Doug Laycock, together with Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLCS, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Blaine. The brief argues: “Just as a pro-choice printer has a right to decline to print a religious message attacking Planned Parenthood, and a gay photographer has a right to decline to photograph a religious anti-gay rally, a Christian printer who believes in traditional marriage has a right to decline to print materials contradicting that view. The law protects the freedom of individuals in a pluralistic society to disagree.”

On October 31, 2019, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hands On Originals, further protecting free speech and our pluralistic society.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious freedom protects the rights of individuals to observe their faith at all times, including in the workplace. In this case, the government is forcing Blaine Adamson to choose between his deeply held religious convictions and his livelihood.
  • Free speech: The First Amendment protects our right to speak freely on issues without fear of government censorship or punishment, even when, and especially when, that view is unpopular. In this case, Blaine’s artistic expressions are a form of speech, and the government should not force him to create something that violates his religious beliefs.

Dermody v. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)

Churches must have the right to follow their own religious rules, even if some church members disagree with how those rules apply to them. In this case, a disgruntled minister who had failed a church financial audit, threatened that right by asking the court to override the church’s enforcement of its internal financial guidelines against him.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s “1001” movement” is a mission project aimed at creating 1,001 new worshiping communities. Under watch of the project executive, a church minister, two employees violated church financial policy when they transferred $100,000 from the church’s accounts into a private entity they had set up. Although the employees did not intend to misuse the money and the money was ultimately recovered, the minister was cited by the church for his failed oversight. The Presbyterian Church immediately published the audit findings on its website and detailed the corrective measures it was taking. Although the church initially never published the minister’s name, he publicly admitted responsibility and then sued the church for defamation.

The minister’s lawsuit was filed in May 2015, and sought monetary compensation for the church’s allegedly defamatory statements. Last September, the trial court denied relief because the church’s statements appeared to be true and the First Amendment barred the court from second-guessing the church’s decision to enforce its standards of ethical conduct for religious leaders. The minister then appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in June 2016 on behalf of the church, arguing that, under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, courts cannot interfere with churches’ statements to their members about the conduct of their religious leaders. In July 2017, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), protecting the right of churches to operate their internal affairs without government intrusion. The church was represented by Stoll Keenan Ogden PLLC.

McCreary County v. ACLU

In the same day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Ten Commandments display in Van Orden v. Perry, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the Ten Commandments display in a Kentucky courthouse.

Becket filed an amicus brief in both cases arguing such displays are both culturally valuable and constitutionally permissible.

Liberty Counsel was counsel in this case.