Kentucky’s attorney general said Wednesday that state and local officials cannot order religious schools to close, as long as they are complying with social distancing and health guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement released minutes into Gov. Andy Beshear’s daily press briefing, Attorney General Daniel Cameron said that a forced closure of religious schools violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and state law.
“The law prohibits the state from mandating the closure of religiously affiliated schools that are complying with recommended health guidelines,” said Cameron. “Our courts have consistently held, throughout this pandemic, that religious entities are protected by our Constitution. Religiously affiliated schools are an important extension of faith for many Kentucky families, and the state cannot prevent them from operating so long as necessary health precautions are observed.”
Cameron also noted that Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act states that the government may not “substantially burden” a religious belief without demonstrating “a compelling governmental interest” and using “the least restrictive means to further that interest.”
The AG’s opinion comes after Beshear, a Democrat, said last week that he disagreed with schools that have decided to return to in-person learning as his state recorded a new single-day high of more than 1,100 positive tests of COVID-19 and asked them to reconsider.
During his Aug. 12 press briefing, Beshear recommended that schools wait until Sept. 28 to resume in-person classes. “All we’re asking right now is one month,” the governor said, urging schools and parents to use patience. “One month to not make mistakes with the health of our children, their parents or their teachers.”
Catholic schools in Kentucky, however, have signaled that they’re heading into in-person learning with no delays, reported Lexington Herald Leader. Superintendent of Schools for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington told the newspaper that 13 schools in the diocese would bring students back between Aug. 17 and Aug. 19.
In response to schools that defy his recommendation, Beshear said it was unlikely that he would issue an executive order to shut them down, but he would if there is a massive outbreak like the one that hit a Georgia school district, where more than 900 students and staff members were quarantined over fears of exposure to the CCP (Chinese Coommunist Party) virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.
“If somebody opens and has a huge outbreak and it’s threatening the lives of people, we’ll take the steps we have to to protect our kids,” he said. “I want to get them back for in-person classes, but lets be wise about how we do it.”