Last week U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled that the governor’s executive order halting in-person classes until the beginning of January at both public and private schools across the state infringes on church-affilliated institutions’ constitutional rights. The judge agreed with 17 religion-based private schools that challenged Gov. Andy Beshear’s emergency restriction, saying that the order violates the First Amendment and Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Van Tatenhove wrote that governor has every right to impose some restrictions on all schools, such as requiring face masks, limiting class sizes, requiring that COVID-19 cases be reported and enforcing social distancing guidelines.
“But in an effort to do the right thing to fight the virus, the governor cannot do the wrong thing by infringing protected values,” he added, saying the “First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.'”
However, on Sunday a three-member panel of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati issued a stay on Van Tatenhove’s order and added that it will likely rule that Beshear’s order, which requires middle and high schools to continue with remote learning until early next year and will allow elementary schools to reopen next week only if the county they are in is not in the red zone on the state’s COVID-19 incidence rate map, was “neutral and of general applicability.” Currently, 115 of Kentucky’s 120 counties are in the red zone — meaning there are at least 25 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents reported daily.
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who supported the private schools’ bid to remain open for in-person instruction, said on Twitter Sunday that he is disappointed with the ruling and vowed to take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Much like the debate over whether face masks should be required in public, the decision to resume in-person instruction shouldn't be a political issue, but a scientific one. Resuming in-person classes while thousands of new coronavirus cases are reported in the state each day would only endanger the health and safety of students, teachers and families. It is better to be safe than sorry.