Federal court halts part of Beshear's COVID-19 school orders

Associated Press (AP) — A federal court halted Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear's recent coronavirus-related suspension of in-person classes at religious schools, a victory for state Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Beshear has appealed the ruling to the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and asked for an emergency stay of the judge's order.

U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove on Wednesday ruled that the Democratic governor's order cannot apply to religious schools as the “First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.’”

Under Beshear's new restrictions, middle and high schools are required to continue with remote learning until January. Elementary schools may reopen Dec. 7 if the county they are located in is not in a “red zone,” the highest category for COVID-19 incidence rates.

This is not the first time that Judge Van Tatenhove has struck down coronavirus-related mandates in favor of religious institutions. In May, the judge struck down the portion of Beshear's religious order that expanded a ban on mass gatherings to in-person church services.

The court's ruling on Wednesday is another development in the latest battleground between the attorney general and governor over Beshear’s pandemic restrictions since the state Supreme Court upheld the governor’s authority to issue coronavirus-related mandates in an unanimous ruling on Nov. 12.

“We are disappointed but not surprised that Judge Van Tatenhove, for the second time, has refused to acknowledge the U.S. Supreme Court decision that found an action like this is both legal and constitutional,” Crystal Staley, a spokeswoman for Beshear, said Wednesday.

Cameron, a Republican, praised the court's ruling, and in a tweet Thursday and urged the governor to drop his appeal following a U.S. Supreme Curt Ruling that struck down New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's virus-related restrictions on religious services.

Coronavirus cases continue to surge throughout Kentucky. The state reported over 3,870 new confirmed cases Thursday, the highest number of new cases since the pandemic began. An additional 1,747 cases were reported Friday. The state also recorded a total of 36 virus-related deaths over Thursday and Friday.

Almost all of Kentucky’s 120 counties are reported to be in the red zone — the most serious category for COVID-19 incidence rates. People in those counties are asked to follow stricter recommended guidelines to contain the virus.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.

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Follow the AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/virus-outbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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Hudspeth Blackburn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.