Church plans to file lawsuit against state in constitutional showdown

Updated: Apr. 13, 2020 at 7:28 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - It’s a showdown between church and state, with the coronavirus and the U.S. Constitution at the center of it all.

A Kentucky church whose members defied Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive order not to gather in groups now plans to file a federal lawsuit claiming its constitutional rights were violated.

The Maryville Baptist Church is at the center of the debate, after about 50 members attended an Easter service in person.

Kentucky State Police troopers were ordered to take down the license plates of those who attended, threatening to quarantine them.

The church’s attorney, Matthew Staver, said the lawsuit is because the church was targeted. But not all agree.

Constitutional attorney Mitchell Denham said he believes the law may be on Beshear’s side since the constitution has boundaries.

"There are limits to those rights," Denham said.

Staver and his team are not backing down.

“Even in times of this pandemic,” Staver, from the Liberty Counsel, told WAVE 3 News, “you don’t lose your constitutional rights.

“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."

Denham said Kentucky Revised Statutes Chapter 39-A gives Beshear the authority to disperse crowds during a state of emergency, like a pandemic. He said Beshear, the former attorney general, knew how to craft the order and keep it legal by making it broad to any gathering, not specific to a religious institution.

At the same time, Denham said, the executive order had to be specifically tailored to preventing the spread of a potentially deadly virus.

"That chapter gives him very broad authority to limit gathering of this nature across the board," Denham said.

The Liberty Counsel doesn’t agree, saying it was Beshear’s intent to focus on churches.

“We know what he intended,” Staver said. “He was very public about it. He didn’t try to hide anything.

“He’s not executed that against any other commercial organization. It’s only against churches. That’s what he wanted. That’s what he did that’s unconstitutional."

Denham refutes the argument that the constitution was violated because, he said, the law is also there to protect people’s lives. He added that the Supreme Court has limited free speech before, preventing people from yelling “there’s a fire in a theater,” for example.

"You cannot place people in harm by exercising your religion," Denham said.

Denham also explained that the troopers did have the authority to run people’s plates through the federal system NCIC even though they were going to church. He explained that’s because a violation of Beshear’s executive order could be a Class A misdemeanor thanks to KRS 39-A.990.

Troopers cited that statute on the notices they handed out at the church on Sunday.

During a press conference Sunday, Beshear said the plates were run in order to send people notices from the Public Health Department requiring them to quarantine. Beshear also said he did not believe anyone who attended the service would be arrested.

Staver said the church took precautions not to spread COVID-19, like offering hand sanitizer, and not allowing parties to sit close together in the pews. He said the church has a large attendance capacity, and that only 50 people came, allowing for plenty of space for social distancing.

Staver said the troopers running the license plates were simply following orders. He did not expect Kentucky State Police to be part of the federal lawsuit.

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