Federal Court: “if beer is ‘essential,’ so is Easter.”
Earlier this month, a federal court in Kentucky temporarily enjoined an order issued by the Mayor of Louisville on the grounds that the order likely violated First Amendment and Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. On Holy Thursday, Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, including for the Easter holiday, even if they remained in parked cars. On Fire Christian Center, Inc. (On Fire) wanted to hold its Easter worship service and planned to have its congregants attend by remaining in their parked vehicles 6-feet apart in accordance with CDC guidelines. The only people who would be outside of cars would be the pastor and a videographer. On Fire sued the Mayor and City of Louisville and sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent the enforcement of the order. The court issued agreed with On Fire and issued the TRO. According to the court, “if beer is ‘essential,’ so is Easter.” (The court was quick to point out that it did “not mean to impugn the perfectly legal business of selling alcohol, nor the legal and widely enjoyed activity of drinking it.”)
The Court began its decision by noting the following:
On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter. That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion. But two days ago, citing the need for social distance during the current pandemic, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, even if they remained in their cars to worship – and even though it’s Easter.
While the Court found that trying to protect against the spread of the coronavirus was certainly a legitimate government interest intended to promote the public health, safety, and welfare, the order was not “narrowly tailored” to pursue those interests. In other words, the order was underinclusive because it did not prevent a host of equally dangerous (or equally harmless) activity. For example, while the order prohibited people from attending religious worship from their parked vehicles, people could still park their cars and walk inside of a liquor store to purchase alcohol (an “essential” service). According to the court, “if sitting in cars did pose a significant danger of spreading the virus, Louisville would close all drive-throughs and parking lots that are not related to maintaining public health, which they haven’t done.”
The court’s memorandum of decision in On Fire Christian Center, Inc. v. Greg Fischer, No. 3:20-cv-264 (W.D. KY 2020) is available here.
Since then, the parties settled the dispute. On Fire can hold “drive-in” worship services subject to CDC guidelines and other requirements which can be reviewed in the settlement here.