Supreme Court denies Kentucky religious schools exemption from virus shutdown

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a request by a Kentucky religious school to be exempted from a public health decree closing all K-12 campuses across the state. But the court, noting that the order was soon to expire, said the school could raise further objections if the restrictions were reinstated in the future.

Two judges, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, opposed the unsigned order, arguing that the court should have overturned an appeals court ruling allowing Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s public health directive to remain in place.

The Supreme Court has become more open to religious challenges to public health orders since Judge Amy Coney Barrett replaced late Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was loath to question court-approved rules to fight the coronavirus pandemic inferiors or state officials.

The Danville Christian Academy went further in its argument than other recent challenges, claiming that its constitutional rights to religious exercise allowed it to keep students on campus even as all other public and secular private schools had to. to close.

The school’s claim received wide-ranging support, in a friend of the court brief filed by former White House attorney Donald McGahn and other Jones Day attorneys on behalf of the chief of the Senate majority Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and 36 other Senate Republicans.

The majority of the court observed that some constitutional arguments were not made clear in the appeal, and that since all schools in Kentucky could reopen on January 4, there was little to be lost by leaving the case for another. day, if the restrictions were reimposed.

Judge Gorsuch’s dissent, joined by Judge Alito, argued that the court should have ruled in favor of Danville Christian Academy, since Mr Beshear left open the possibility of renewing capacity limits or closure orders at the during the new year.

“A governor [should not] to be able to escape judicial review by issuing short-term edicts and then urging us to ignore their problems only because one edict is about to expire while the next has not yet arrived ”, wrote Justice Gorsuch.

It was important to send a message, he added, because “in their struggle to respond to the current pandemic, executive officials have sometimes treated constitutional rights with suspicion.”

Mr Beshear learned of the court’s action at a press conference on Thursday.

“First of all, we didn’t close any schools, we just moved them to virtual online education, and I think that’s important, because suggesting a school is closed suggests educators aren’t working. with the students to provide the best experience possible, and they do a hell of a job, ”said Beshear.

“The second thing is that religious schools were by no means treated any differently. We asked everyone to make the same sacrifices, ”he said. “And guess what? We see with this and other measurements, it has stopped an exponential growth that was threatening our hospital capacity,” added Mr. Beshear.

After the court made its order, Kelly Shackelford, president of the First Liberty Institute, a religious rights group that represents the school, said: “Although we would have liked the court to rule on the merits today , we appreciate the court’s specific invitation to seek an injunction if the governor decides to reissue his unconstitutional order on January 4. “

“The courts must send a message to Governor Beshear and the country’s government officials that our God-given rights are always protected, even in times of crisis, and especially against irrational and discriminatory government orders,” Mr. Shackelford.

Write to Jess Bravin at [email protected]

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