The Volokh Conspiracy

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Kentucky Governor's Order Violates Free Exercise Clause as to In-Person Worship Services

So the Sixth Circuit held today, because of the many exceptions the Kentucky order provides for secualr activities.


In today's Roberts v. Neace, Sixth Circuit Judges Sutton, McKeague, and Nalbandian, granted an injunction pending appeal of a case challenging the Kentucky Governor's shutdown order, as applied to in-person worship services. And in the process the panel concluded that the order likely violates the Free Exercise Clause, because it treats religious worship services worse than many exempted activities, including "typical office environments."  The court concludes that the petitioner is entitled to conduct an in-person service tomorrow, though the state can impose the same social distancing requirements on it as it does on exempt entities:

Governor Beshear has issued two pertinent orders arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. The first order, issued on March 19, prohibits "[a]ll mass gatherings," "including, but not limited to, community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based, or sporting events." It excepts "normal operations at airports, bus and train stations, … shopping malls and centers," and "typical office environments, factories, or retail or grocery stores where large numbers of people are present, but maintain appropriate social distancing."

The second order, issued on March 25, requires organizations that are not "life-sustaining" to close. The order lists 19 broad categories of life-sustaining organizations and over a hundred sub-categories spanning four pages. Among the many exempt entities are laundromats, accounting services, law firms, hardware stores, airlines, mining operations, funeral homes, landscaping businesses, and grocery stores. Religious organizations do not count as "life- sustaining," except when they provide "food, shelter, and social services." …

The Governor's restriction on in-person worship services likely "prohibits the free exercise" of "religion" in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. On one side of the line, a generally applicable law that incidentally burdens religious practices usually will be upheld. On the other side of the line, a law that discriminates against religious practices usually will be invalidated because it is the rare law that can be "justified by a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to advance that interest."

These orders likely fall on the prohibited side of the line…. [A] law might appear to be generally applicable on the surface but not be so in practice due to exceptions for comparable secular activities. See Ward v. Polite, 667 F.3d 727, 738 (6th Cir. 2012); see also Fraternal Order of Police Newark Lodge No. 12 v. City of Newark, 170 F.3d 359, 365-67 (3d Cir. 1999)….

[T]he four pages of exceptions in the orders, and the kinds of group activities allowed, remove them from the safe harbor for generally applicable laws[.] … As a rule of thumb, the more exceptions to a prohibition, the less likely it will count as a generally applicable, non- discriminatory law. "At some point, an exception-ridden policy takes on the appearance and reality of a system of individualized exemptions, the antithesis of a neutral and generally applicable policy and just the kind of state action that must run the gauntlet of strict scrutiny."

The Governor insists at the outset that there are "no exceptions." But that is word play. The orders allow "life-sustaining" operations and don't include worship services in the definition. And many of the serial exemptions for secular activities pose comparable public health risks to worship services. For example: The exception for "life- sustaining" businesses allows law firms, laundromats, liquor stores, gun shops, airlines, mining operations, funeral homes, and landscaping businesses to continue to operate so long as they follow social-distancing and other health-related precautions. But the orders do not permit soul-sustaining group services of faith organizations, even if the groups adhere to all the public health guidelines required of the other services.

Keep in mind that the Church and its congregants just want to be treated equally. They don't seek to insulate themselves from the Commonwealth's general public health guidelines. They simply wish to incorporate them into their worship services. They are willing to practice social distancing. They are willing to follow any hygiene requirements. They do not ask to share a chalice. The Governor has offered no good reason for refusing to trust the congregants who promise to use care in worship in just the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and laundromat workers to do the same.

Come to think of it, aren't the two groups of people often the same people—going to work on one day and going to worship on another? How can the same person be trusted to comply with social-distancing and other health guidelines in secular settings but not be trusted to do the same in religious settings? The distinction defies explanation, or at least the Governor has not provided one.


No doubt, some groups in some settings will fail to comply with social-distancing rules. If so, the Governor is free to enforce the social-distancing rules against them for that reason and in that setting, whether a worship setting or not. What he can't do is assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work or go about the rest of their daily lives in permitted social settings. We have plenty of company in ruling that at some point a proliferation of unexplained exceptions turns a generally applicable law into a discriminatory one. See, e.g., Tenafly Eruv Ass'n v. Borough of Tenafly, 309 F.3d 144, 165-70 (3d Cir. 2002); Fraternal Order of Police, 170 F.3d at 365; see also Cent. Rabbinical Cong. of U.S. & Can. v. N.Y.C. Dep't of Health & Mental Hygiene, 763 F.3d 183, 196-98 (2d Cir. 2014).

We don't doubt the Governor's sincerity in trying to do his level best to lessen the spread of the virus or his authority to protect the Commonwealth's citizens. See Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905). And we agree that no one, whether a person of faith or not, has a right "to expose the community … to communicable disease." Prince v. Massachusetts (1944). But restrictions inexplicably applied to one group and exempted from another do little to further these goals and do much to burden religious freedom. Assuming all of the same precautions are taken, why can someone safely walk down a grocery store aisle but not a pew? And why can someone safely interact with a brave deliverywoman but not with a stoic minister? The Commonwealth has no good answers. While the law may take periodic naps during a pandemic, we will not let it sleep through one.

Nor does it make a difference that faith-based bigotry did not motivate the orders. The constitutional benchmark is "government neutrality," not "governmental avoidance of bigotry." A law is not neutral and generally applicable unless there is "neutrality between religion and non-religion." And a law can reveal a lack of neutrality by protecting secular activities more than comparable religious ones.

All of this requires the orders to satisfy the strictures of strict scrutiny. They cannot. No one contests that the orders burden sincere faith practices. Faith plainly motivates the worship services. And no one disputes the Church's sincerity. Orders prohibiting religious gatherings, enforced by police officers telling congregants they violated a criminal law and by officers taking down license plate numbers, will chill worship gatherings.

At the same time, no one contests that the Governor has a compelling interest in preventing the spread of a novel, highly contagious, sometimes fatal virus. The Governor has plenty of reasons to try to limit this contagion, and we have no doubt he is trying to do just that.

The question is whether the orders amount to "the least restrictive means" of serving these laudable goals. That's a difficult hill to climb, and it was never meant to be anything less. There are plenty of less restrictive ways to address these public-health issues. Why not insist that the congregants adhere to social-distancing and other health requirements and leave it at that—just as the Governor has done for comparable secular activities? Or perhaps cap the number of congregants coming together at one time?

If the Commonwealth trusts its people to innovate around a crisis in their professional lives, surely it can trust the same people to do the same things in the exercise of their faith. The orders permit uninterrupted functioning of "typical office environments," which presumably includes business meetings. How are in-person meetings with social distancing any different from in-person church services with social distancing? Permitting one but not the other hardly counts as no-more-than-necessary lawmaking.

Sure, the Church might use Zoom services or the like, as so many places of worship have decided to do over the last two months. But who is to say that every member of the congregation has access to the necessary technology to make that work? Or to say that every member of the congregation must see it as an adequate substitute for what it means when "two or three gather in my Name," Matthew 18:20, or what it means when "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together," Hebrews 10:25.

As individuals, we have some sympathy for Governor DeWine's approach—to allow places of worship in Ohio to hold services but then to admonish all of them (we assume) that it's "not Christian" to hold in-person services during a pandemic. But the Free Exercise Clause does not protect sympathetic religious practices alone. And that's exactly what the federal courts are not to judge—how individuals comply with their own faith as they see it.

The Governor suggests that the explanation for these groups of people to be in the same area—intentional worship—creates greater risks of contagion than groups of people, say, in an office setting or an airport. But the reason a group of people go to one place has nothing to do with it. Risks of contagion turn on social interaction in close quarters; the virus does not care why they are there.

So long as that is the case, why do the orders permit people who practice social distancing and good hygiene in one place but not another for similar lengths of time? It's not as if law firm office meetings and gatherings at airport terminals always take less time than worship services. If the problem is numbers, and risks that grow with greater numbers, there is a straightforward remedy: limit the number of people who can attend a service at one time. All in all, the Governor did not customize his orders to the least restrictive way of dealing with the problem at hand….