Supreme Court Rejects Kentucky Religious School on Covid Shutdown

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The U.S. Supreme Court refused to let religious schools in Kentucky resume in-person classes, at least temporarily rejecting calls for an exemption from a shutdown order amid a surge of Covid-19 cases.

Over two dissents, the justice turned away a Christian school that said Kentucky’s restrictions unconstitutionally discriminate against religion, even though the rules also apply to public and secular private schools.

In a three-paragraph explanation, the court cast the rebuff as being less about the constitutional questions than about the timing. The court pointed to Friday’s start of the holiday break for Kentucky schools and to the Jan. 4 expiration of the shutdown order by Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat.

Beshear’s order “effectively expires this week or shortly thereafter, and there is no indication that it will be renewed,” the court said. Religious schools can renew their request “if the governor issues a school-closing order that applies in the new year.”

Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented, with Alito saying that Danville Christian Academy filed its request at the Supreme Court on Dec. 1.

“It is hard to see how they could have proceeded more expeditiously,” he wrote.

Gorsuch wrote that “I would not leave in place yet another potentially unconstitutional decree, even for the next few weeks.”

In November the court voted 5-4 to block strict capacity limits on worship services in parts of New York, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett providing the key vote. But Danville was asking the court to go a step further and give religious schools a special carve-out.

Covid Wave

Beshear ordered all K-12 schools to stop in-person classes starting Nov. 23 as Kentucky began experiencing a new wave of Covid cases. Although Beshear’s order is set to expire Jan. 4, the state is recommending schools wait until Jan. 11 to resume face-to-face instruction.

Danville argued that in-person instruction is vital to its religious mission. The school, which has 234 students from preschool to grade 12, said it has spent between $20,000 and $30,000 on Covid safety precautions. Its classes range from four to 20 students, the school said.

Danville contended that religious schools are being treated less favorably than a long list of secular establishments, including offices, malls, sports venues, gyms and movie theaters.

“While we would have liked the court to rule on the merits today, we appreciate the court’s specific invitation to us to seek an injunction if the governor decides to reissue his unconstitutional order on Jan 4th,” said Kelly Shackelford, one of the lawyers for the school and president of the religious-rights group First Liberty Institute. “Rest assured, if the governor does so on Jan 4th, we will file against him immediately.”

Beshear told the Supreme Court he held off barring in-person instruction until a third virus wave hit the state in November and required extraordinary measures. Beshear, who said he consulted Kentucky’s leading public health and education experts, said religious schools aren’t entitled to special treatment in the face of a public health crisis.

A federal district judge barred the state from enforcing Beshear’s order against any religious school that adheres to applicable social distancing and hygiene guidelines. An appeals court blocked that order, prompting Danville to turn to the Supreme Court.

The case is Danville Christian Academy v. Beshear, 20A96.

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