Lawsuit Filed Against Kentucky Gov. Over COVID-19 Restrictions Claims He 'Criminalized' Family Dinners for the Holidays

A lawsuit filed on Monday against Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear over his new emergency orders to combat the rapid spread of the coronavirus ahead of the holidays claims he's "criminalized" holiday dinners and other in-person activities for large families.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of religious schools, churches and families opposing Beshear's decision to temporarily ban in-person classes and limit indoor gatherings to eight people or less. Two families from Scott and Boone counties with seven and nine children, respectively, charge that the governor is criminalizing their immediate family's gatherings.

"Governor Beshear has criminalized their daily family dinner and other in-home family activities," the lawsuit states.

Chris Wiest, one of the three attorneys involved in the lawsuit, told Newsweek the governor's orders regarding indoor gatherings are too vague, especially for the large families he represents.

"One of my clients has nine children, and they've asked me, 'Do my kids have to sleep outside?'" Wiest said.

According to the way the emergency order was drafted, large families like his clients are technically prohibited from gathering indoors on Thanksgiving, he said, adding, "I don't think they intended it that way."

Beshear's order states: "All indoor social gatherings are limited to a maximum of
two (2) households and a maximum of eight (8) people. A household is
defined as individuals living together in the same home."

At a Tuesday press conference, the Democratic governor called the lawsuit "ridiculous."

"Nobody is saying that a family of 10 can't continue to live together and to eat together," Beshear said. "What we're saying is if one family wants to have another family over, it's only two households—two groups that live under the same roof—and eight people total in that group.

"To suggest we were saying you can't have dinner with a large family is ridiculous," he continued. "And I know that there are some attorneys out there that just itch for fights or want to make the news, but it's dumb and we don't need to be having these types of distractions with what we're trying to do to save lives. And that's what we're doing. We are saving lives."

Beshear's orders will remain in effect until December 13.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear COVID Lockdown
State Attorney General Andy Beshear, now Kentucky's governor, speaks to supporters on November 5, 2019, in Louisville. John Sommers II/Getty

In the lawsuit, a group of Kentucky churches and religious schools claim that Beshear's new order that shuts down in-person learning this week is unconstitutional, while child care centers, universities, movie theaters, grocery stores and other public spaces can operate with lesser restrictions. According to the suit, forcing religious schools to suspend in-person classes violates the First Amendment's protection of the "free exercise" of religion.

"Governor Beshear's executive orders, which constitute his political value judgment, unconstitutionally infringe on the autonomy of religious institutions and churches in violation of the First Amendment," the lawsuit says. "Governor Beshear, consistent with the First Amendment, cannot tell religious institutions and churches that they can hold in-person worship services, but cannot hold in-person schooling."

In a similar lawsuit filed last week, and joined by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, 17 private schools are suing the governor for halting in-person learning at all K-12 schools across the state. The suit argues that the order would prevent religious organizations from providing private education and is therefore unconstitutional.

Last week, Beshear requested that religious leaders suspend in-person services at houses of worship because of the surging coronavirus cases in the state. However, his request was simply a recommendation for church leaders after a federal court in May struck down as unconstitutional a mandate banning church gatherings.

Two other plaintiffs involved in the latest lawsuit are suing Beshear because they plan to host "politically related peaceful assemblies of 15-20 individuals," which the governor has prohibited.

Beshear's orders come after Kentucky saw a major surge in virus cases in the past month. The state reported 2,690 new cases and 17 deaths on Tuesday. The state's number of confirmed cases is now 134,739, with 1,764 confirmed deaths. More than 1,600 people are hospitalized in the state with COVID-19.

Kentucky is ranked 22 among states for the fastest spread of the virus, according to a USA Today Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.

In Tuesday's press conference, Beshear pleaded for Kentuckians to avoid large gatherings on Thanksgiving.

"As we have shown you, we are in exponential growth in our cases here in the commonwealth," Beshear said. "If we do not stop the exponential growth of cases, we will exceed our health care capacity. We will run out of doctors and nurses."

He added, "While we want more people getting tested, we believe it's people getting tested, and if they test negative, they think they can have a big Thanksgiving. I hope that's not the case. A single [negative] COVID-19 test can't guarantee a safe Thanksgiving."

Newsweek reached out to Beshear's office for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.