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Easter churchgoers defiant after Kentucky troopers write down their license plate numbers

Louisville Courier-Journal logo Louisville Courier-Journal 4/13/2020 Sarah Ladd, Louisville Courier Journal
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HILLVIEW, Ky. — As hymns sang out Easter Sunday from a large outdoor speaker overlooking the Maryville Baptist Church parking lot, two Kentucky State troopers placed quarantine notices on parishioners' cars and wrote down their license numbers.

Inside the church, roughly 50 worshipers ignored Gov. Andy Beshear's order against mass gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic so they could attend services together on Christianity's holiest day.

Several said as they left that they had no intention of abiding by the notice on their windshields that called for a 14-day self-quarantine or face the threat of "further enforcement measures."

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Beshear said Sunday that those who received notices will get a letter "asking them to self-quarantine."

"No one is being charged with anything," he said.

Nails, screws and carpenter tacks were found in various spots of the Maryville Baptist Church parking lot on Easter morning. April 12, 2020

Nails, screws and carpenter tacks were found in various spots of the Maryville Baptist Church parking lot on Easter morning. April 12, 2020
© Scott Utterback/The Courier Journal
Asked if the state will consider GPS monitoring anklets such as Jefferson County has used for those exposed to COVID-19 who failed to self-isolate, Beshear said "it's not going to come to that."

"We don't need any of that," he said. "We just need people to do the right thing." 

But he did take the opportunity to again discourage the church from meeting in person. 

"Those that want to have mass gatherings send out a signal all around the country to those that don't think this virus is serious, that don't follow the rules and then want to come to a place to make their point," Beshear said.

Kentucky Health Commissioner Steven Stack was more blunt.

"At what point do our rights to gather entitle us to have other people die as a result?" he asked at Beshear's briefing.

Even so, it's clear that Maryville's pastor, the Rev. Jack Roberts, has no intention of ending in-person services, despite the deadly pandemic, putting his church among a handful of others across Kentucky that have rebuffed Beshear's wishes.  

Roberts arrived at the church Sunday morning to find several piles of nails dumped at the church entrances to the parking lot. He said he wouldn't tell his congregation to follow or defy the orders that Beshear announced Friday in his ongoing effort to hold down the spread of COVID-19.

The virus has killed 97 Kentuckians and infected more than 1,800.

"Everybody has to do what they feel comfortable with," Roberts said. He did cover his own license plate, as did several other parishioners.

It didn't matter. Troopers took down the VIN numbers instead.

Across Kentucky, reports came in of other churches in potential violation of the mass-gathering rules and CDC guidelines on drive-thru services. 

More: Coronavirus hot spots plague Western Kentucky, Southeast Indiana and Northern Tennessee

Sgt. Josh Lawson of Kentucky State Police said most of KSP's 16 posts responded to between two and five complaints about church services.

But they hadn't found any violations of CDC guidelines or other in-person services — except for Maryville.

Most calls were for outdoor services, where people remained in their cars. Those services “were specifically mentioned by the governor as being allowed,” Lawson said.

At Maryville, the people who stayed in their cars and listened to the service through the outdoor speaker did not receive quarantine notices. 

“We’re responding to those calls as we would any other calls for service,” Lawson said.

Elsewhere around Kentucky, troopers used community connections to speak with pastors to advise that “they can worship while doing so safely and within proper guidelines.” Lawson said, adding that it has been “very non-confrontational.”

In fact, several pastors in Eastern Kentucky who were planning to hold in-person services changed their minds and opted for drive-in services, said Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley.

Mosley had said in a Facebook post Saturday that he knew of 10 churches in his county that were planning in-person Easter services.

The Harlan County official noted how a church revival across the state in Hopkins County as well a church gathering in Pulaski County resulted in deadly outbreaks of COVID-19.

To the churches still planning in-person gatherings, Mosley warned, "just know you are putting your members in harm’s way, unlike the hundreds of churches in our county that are doing it the right way and having virtual or drive-up services." 

Church vs. state in a viral pandemic

The Rev. Roberts couldn't be swayed.

He had been determined to move forward with the 11 a.m. Easter service at Maryville despite repeated pleas from Beshear to shift to virtual services and the governor's March 19 executive order prohibiting mass gatherings.

Background: Kentucky church leader vows to hold Easter services

Earlier this week, the Baptist congregation also received a state-backed order from the Bullitt County Health Department to cease in-person gatherings "immediately."

The church rebuffed both, holding a Wednesday evening service that drew roughly 40 attendees.

Beshear's order for police to record license plates has drawn criticism from numerous Republicans at the state and federal level, including U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, Congressman Thomas Massie and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Roberts has said he is "not interested in trying to defy the government," but believes his church has a constitutional right to continue to hold worship services inside his church.

More news: Judge allows drive-in service at Louisville church, says Fischer 'criminalized' Easter

"If you read the Constitution of the United States, if you read the constitution of the state of Kentucky, they both say that (Beshear) is infringing on the church's rights," Roberts said earlier this week.

Most clergy support staying home for Easter

Beshear has often mentioned in recent weeks that the vast majority of churches, have chosen to hold virtual services to protect their members and the community from the spread of COVID-19.

"To our knowledge, 99.89% of all churches and all synagogues and all mosques in Kentucky have chosen to do the right thing," Beshear said Saturday. "I'm just doing my best to save lives. And there aren't easy answers."

The governor promised that the state is not going to "padlock doors or arrest pastors."

Recording license plate numbers, he said, is an effort to "say that if you’re going to make the decision to go to a mass gathering during this pandemic, it shouldn’t affect other people." 

In Louisville, Mayor Greg Fischer reiterated Saturday that he was "strongly suggesting" churches don't host in-person or drive-in services on Easter weekend. He also had proposed having law enforcement officers record the license plate numbers of those who attend services so the health department could contact attendees if someone falls ill with COVID-19. 

The mayor pointed to photos published in The Courier Journal of a March 29 service at On Fire Christian Church, 5627 New Cut Road, that show some individuals within 6 feet of each other. 

Beshear: Mass gatherings, such as in-person church, will lead to self-quarantine orders

But U.S. District Judge Justin Walker ordered that Louisville do nothing to interfere with On Fire Christian Church's Easter service, calling Fischer's move overly broad and unconstitutional.

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"On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter," Walker wrote in a temporary restraining order.

On Sunday morning, On Fire Christian Church pastor Chuck Salvo stood on a podium above 100 or so cars in the parking lot, starting the Easter morning service by singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” and waving the American flag to a chorus of honks from churchgoers.

Before getting into his Easter sermon, Salvo said he recognized that government officials “are up against a tremendous challenge” and led the congregation in a prayer.

He then recited the CDC guidelines for drive-in services.

Savannah Eadens, Billy Kobin and Chris Kenning contributed reporting. 

Reach breaking news reporter Sarah Ladd at sladd@courier-journal.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ladd_sarah. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/subscribe.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Easter churchgoers defiant after Kentucky troopers write down their license plate numbers

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