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Federal judge rules Beshear can’t suspend in-person classes at religious private schools

November 25, 2020 | 7:52 pm

Updated November 25, 2020 | 8:52 pm

Graphic by Owensboro Times

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that religious private schools in Kentucky are exempt from Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive order requiring them to suspend in-person classes due to the rise in COVID-19 cases across the state. 

At least one religious private school in Owensboro — Heritage Christian School — has confirmed they plan to resume in-person classes Monday. Officials with Owensboro Catholic said they will meet Friday to evaluate the situation and discuss options.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove granted a preliminary injunction to religious private schools after a lawsuit was filed against Beshear’s restriction.

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Van Tatenhove ruled that the governor’s order can remain in place for public schools.

“The governor is enjoined from enforcing the prohibition on in-person instruction with respect to any religious private school in Kentucky that adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines,” Van Tatenhove wrote.

A full copy of the court’s ruling is available here.

On Friday, Attorney General Cameron and Danville Christian Academy filed a lawsuit against Beshear asking the court to issue a statewide temporary restraining order against the governor’s restriction regarding in-person instruction at religious schools.  

Several other religious schools across the state — including Heritage Christian School — as well as Kentucky Treasurer Allison Ball and more than 1,000 Kentucky parents filed amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit. 

Cameron argued that Beshear’s order violates the First Amendment as well as Kentucky’s equivalent constitutional guarantees and the Commonwealth’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA).

Tim Hoak, the administrator at Heritage, said they signed an amicus brief after Senator Matt Castlen made them aware of how they could lend support to Cameron’s office.

Hoak said their school, which has nearly 200 students, had not had a single positive cases of COVID-19 among the students, faculty and staff. He said there had been a few quarantines due to outside contacts, but no active cases in the building.

“We felt like our efforts — maintaining social distancing, face mask usage, sanitizing, disinfecting — those have been successful,” Hoak said. “… We felt like our record was good enough to continue in-person classes, not to mention the whole other issue of infringement on the free exercise of our religion because we are a Christian school.”

Hoak said they plan to resume in-person learning Monday and will continue to do so as long as possible.

Owensboro Catholic Schools did not file an amicus brief but officials were following the situation closely and were not surprised by Wednesday’s ruling.

“We were anticipating a favorable ruling,” said Keith Osborne, OCS Chief Administrative Officer. “We will meet on Friday to evaluate our situation and discuss our options.”

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November 25, 2020 | 7:52 pm

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