Church versus state: AG Cameron threatens showdown with Beshear

Before he was the Governor of the state of Kentucky, Andy Beshear spent his time as the Commonwealth’s top prosecutor. While Attorney General, Beshear and former Governor Matt Bevin were infamous for courtroom showdowns. Their battles often revolved around opposing partisan interpretations of the Constitution with Beshear coming out on top at times while Bevin prevailed at other times.

As the Democrat now resides in the governor’s mansion, Beshear has had the role reversed. The new Republican Attorney General, Daniel Cameron, threatened litigation against Beshear at a press conference he held yesterday afternoon in Frankfort.

“Just four years ago, the Kentucky Supreme Court wrote that when the Constitution is threatened, the Attorney General may rise to its defense. Continuing, the court said that the Attorney General is uniquely suited to challenge the constitutionality of an executive action, as a check on an unauthorized exercise of power,” AG Cameron opened. “The plaintiff in that case was Governor Beshear in his time as Attorney General, and the defendant was former Governor Matt Bevin.”

“Over the last few months Kentucky, along with the rest of the country, has been faced with an unprecedented challenge in the form of COVID-19. We know that the virus may have tragic consequences. We must do everything in our power to stop it, but the virus is not the only unprecedented thing we are having to face now,” Cameron continued. “Every day, we are asked or ordered to take new steps to protect the public health. Now, I salute all of the frontline first responders and healthcare workers who are working to ensure the public good. I also respect the difficult decisions being made by the President, governors, county judge/executives, mayors and many other elected officials. We all have a job to do and my job, as you all know, is to defend and protect our constitution.”

“In that vein, today I’m asking that the Governor, as he continues to manage Kentucky’s response to COVID-19, rescind his order prohibiting churches from holding in-person services,” Cameron declared. “Specifically, the Governor should allow churches to resume holding in-person services consistent with the Constitution and CDC guidelines, and if he doesn’t, we will be forced to file a lawsuit and allow a judge to determine whether his order, as it pertains to religious groups, is constitutional.”

He explained that the 1st Amendment of the Constitution states that Congress shall make no law that prohibits the free exercise of religion, that Section 1 and 5 of the Kentucky Constitution gives the right to worship freely, and that in 2013, the General Assembly passed the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act which provides that government shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion. The AG went on to point out that KRS 446.350 defines a burden to include exclusion to programs or access to facilities.

According to Cameron, the prohibition of in-person services is unconstitutional, and that he is reminded of this every time he drives by a big box store with dozens of cars there while the Governor orders law enforcement to record the license plate numbers of cars in the parking lots of churches. Though he said he was not advocating for the immediate resumption of in-person service, he had faith that religious leaders will listen to healthcare experts on when it is the appropriate time and manner to resume those services and knows that they will be responsible in doing it.

“Even in the midst of a pandemic the Constitution must be given its proper respect. As U.S. Attorney General Barr has explained, the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis,” stated Cameron.

He invited a pastor to speak who addressed the ideas that religious leaders have been developing to safely open back up, following CDC guidelines, if the order were to be rescinded by the Govenor. The pastor argued that they should have the same ability as other stores that have been allowed to do over the last 45-50 days. Churches would continue the online services as they had been doing for those who were concerned about getting out and attending in-person services but could provide an early service for those in the more at risk categories, while holding a later second service for those at lower risk. According to the pastor, closing off every other pew and spacing between individual families were other steps churches could institute to follow social distancing recommendations, if allowed to reopen.

“The way I look at this and the way I think the majority of Kentuckians look at this is that in one hand you have the church which it protected by the 1st Amendment, and in the other hand, you have stores, whether it be a liquor store, Lowes, Home Depot, Walmart, or Target. They look at that juxtaposition of cars that are in those (store) parking lots, and they look at the church that is closed down with no cars in the parking lot and see something inherently wrong about that situation,” Cameron said. “I find that the Constitution protects churches; that the Constitution allows that churches be open, assuming that they are able to abide by the CDC guidelines. I find it that it’s my responsibility, as the Attorney General, to zealously defend the rights of all Kentuckians, as it relates to their 1st Amendment rights.”

He went on to say that this is the result of a long, ongoing discussion that has been going on in his office on how to respond to the situation. They have tried to be patient to see what Governor Beshear was going to do. He said Secretary Friedlander, with Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, has offered no feedback to a letter sent by the AG’s office. Cameron also says he has offered to assist Beshear in drafting some of his orders but received no feedback or response.

“The Constitution is my predominate concern, and the Constitution, in my judgement, is not be being respected. We have a responsibility in this office to defend it,” Cameron concluded. “Common sense must prevail. These are trying times for us all to show grace and lenity to one another; pick one another up. This too shall pass. We will be stronger for it, but until then, we must all follow the great commandment to love one another.”

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