Roberts v. Neace, No. 20-5465 (6th Cir. 2020)Annotate this Case
Kentucky Governor Beshear, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, prohibited “[a]ll mass gatherings,” including faith-based events.” The order excepts “normal operations at airports, bus and train stations, . . . shopping malls,” and “typical office environments, factories, or retail or grocery stores where large numbers of people are present, but maintain appropriate social distancing.” A subsequent order required organizations that are not “life-sustaining” to close. Among the “life-sustaining” exempt entities are laundromats, accounting services, law firms, hardware stores, airlines, mining operations, funeral homes, landscaping businesses, and grocery stores. Religious organizations are not “life-sustaining,” except when they provide “food, shelter, and social services.” Maryville Baptist Church held an Easter service. Some congregants went into the church. Others parked in the church’s parking lot and listened to the service over a loudspeaker. State Police issued notices that their attendance, whether in the church or outdoors, amounted to a criminal act, recorded congregants’ license plate numbers, and sent letters requiring self-quarantine for 14 days. Congregants who attended the Easter service sued, claiming that the orders and their enforcement violated their free-exercise and interstate-travel rights. Two other federal district court cases, challenging the same ban, have resulted in preliminary relief.
The Sixth Circuit granted an injunction pending appeal, Despite the lack of anti-religious animus and the legitimate health concerns, orders prohibiting religious gatherings, enforced by police officers telling congregants they violated a criminal law and taking down license plate numbers, will chill worship gatherings. Applying strict scrutiny, the court reasoned that there are many less restrictive ways to address these public health issues.