Judge rules Kentucky churches can hold in-person services

The governor was going to allow churches to reopen later this month.

A federal judge has ruled that churches in Kentucky are allowed to host in-person gatherings on Sunday -- two weeks earlier than the governor had planned -- as the novel coronavirus crisis continues.

U.S. District Judge Greg Van Tatenhove ruled that Gov. Andy Beshear needed "a compelling reason for using his authority to limit a citizen’s right to freely exercise something we value greatly -- the right of every American to follow their conscience on matters related to religion," according to a copy of the ruling obtained by ABC News. "Despite an honest motive, it does not appear at this preliminary stage that reason exists."

The decision to allow churches to reopen, so long as social distancing is practiced and proper hygienic practices are in place, came after Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to block enforcement of Beshear's order, which bars gatherings of more than 10 people.

Tatenhove noted that other businesses are open amid the pandemic, and while there is "ample" evidence proving that COVID-19 is highly contagious, evidence to show that the risk of contagion is "heightened in a religious setting any more than a secular one is lacking."

"If social distancing is good enough for Home Depot and Kroger, it is good enough for in-person religious services, which, unlike the foregoing, benefit from constitutional protection," Tatenhove wrote.

He also made clear that although the case was brought forth by one church, the "relief may extend statewide because the violation established impacts the entire state of Kentucky."

Lawyers for Beshear argued that the ban was constitutional because it applied to mass gatherings generally, according to the ruling. They also noted that the a grocery store is a "transactional setting" as opposed to the "communal nature of religious services."

Beshear previously announced that houses of worship could reopen on May 20.

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