FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s largest city cannot halt a local church’s drive-in service planned for Easter, a federal judge on Saturday ruled.
The ruling came as Republicans blasted Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s statewide plan to order people into quarantine if they attend mass gatherings, including religious ones.
On Fire Christian Church had sued Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and the city after Fischer announced drive-in style religious gatherings were not allowed on Easter.
U.S. District Judge Justin Walker sided with the church, saying that the city is prohibited from “enforcing; attempting to enforce; threatening to enforce; or otherwise requiring compliance with any prohibition on drive-in church services at On Fire.”
“On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter,” Walker wrote in his sternly worded 20-page opinion. “That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion.”
Walker added that “The Mayor’s decision is stunning. And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional.”
Fischer had argued that drive-in church services weren’t “practical or safe” for the community. However, Walker noted that drive-thru restaurants and liquor stores were still allowed to operate.
“Thank God for a judge who understands the First Amendment prevents the government from prohibiting the free government exercise of religion,” tweeted Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul.
The 38-year-old Walker was confirmed last year despite having been deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association. Walker was a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and President Donald Trump recently nominated him for a seat on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Also Saturday, Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron criticized Beshear’s warning that anyone attending in-person gatherings will be ordered into quarantine for 14 days.
Beshear announced the plan Friday to prevent an Easter weekend acceleration of the coronavirus. While the new action will be applied to all mass gatherings — not just religious ones — some Republican leaders have pushed back, arguing it unfairly singles out religious services.
“Directing a uniformed presence at church services to record the identity of worshippers and to force a quarantine, while doing no such thing for the people gathered at retail stores or obtaining an abortion, is the definition of arbitrary,” Cameron said in a tweet on Saturday. At the same time, Cameron encouraged people to celebrate Easter at home and continue to practice social distancing.
Under the new action, people seen participating in mass gatherings in Kentucky this weekend will have their license plate numbers recorded by authorities, who will provide the information to local health departments. Health officials will contact each participant and require them to go into quarantine for 14 days.
Beshear, a deacon at his church, said the action was needed to protect the public.
The state had nearly 1,700 confirmed cases and 90 deaths related to the virus as of Friday.
Most people who contract COVID-19 have mild or moderate symptoms, which can include fever and cough but also milder cases of pneumonia, sometimes requiring hospitalization. The risk of death is greater for older adults and people with other health problems.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.