Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron filed an emergency petition with the US Supreme Court Monday to lift a Sixth Circuit stay that restricts private religious schools from conducting in-person classes.
In response to a surging number of COVID-19 cases in Kentucky, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear issued an executive order on November 18 requiring all schools in the state to end in-person classes and shift to all-virtual instruction through at least January. A small private Christian school in central Kentucky, Danville Christian Academy, immediately sued to block the order, arguing that it infringed on the religious school’s First Amendment rights. The US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky agreed with the school and issued a preliminary injunction blocking the order in late November.
However, the Sixth Circuit overruled the lower court on Sunday and stayed the injunction. The court said in its decision that because the order was neutral and applied to all schools — both secular and religious — the lower court applied the incorrect legal standard and the order did not run afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses.
Republican Attorney General Cameron, who joined the lawsuit against the governor at the district court, appealed to the Supreme Court to vacate the Sixth Circuit’s decision. Cameron said that the Sixth Circuit had erred by failing to take into account another executive order issued by Governor Beshear that permitted some businesses to remain open. He said that since other businesses were not closed, forcing religious schools with “closely held religious beliefs” mandating in-person teaching to switch to virtual instruction amounted to religious discrimination. He also pointed to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in a New York case that blocked a similar order from being enforced, though the Sixth Circuit had distinguished the case in its opinion because the Kentucky executive order applied only to schools and not to all houses of worship like the New York order.
Beshear did not respond to the filing, though he said after the Sixth Circuit ruling that the state had “nearly 10,000 students and staff in quarantine over the past two-weeks,” and that it was vital to slow the spread of the virus in schools by ceasing in-person instruction.