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

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A federal judge has rebuked Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer's call on churches to forego drive-in services this Easter weekend to slow the spread of the coronavirus, calling the move overly broad and unconstitutional.

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"On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter," wrote U.S. District Judge Justin Walker in a temporary restraining order issued Saturday.

On Fire Christian Church, in Louisville, sued Fischer and the city on Friday, arguing the mayor's direction on drive-in religious services violated Constitutional rights and their religious liberty.

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Walker, who was appointed to the bench last October, banned the city from "enforcing; attempting to enforce; threatening to enforce; or otherwise requiring compliance with any prohibition on drive-in church services at On Fire."

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Churchgoers there "face an impossible choice," the judge wrote: "skip Easter Sunday service, in violation of their sincere religious beliefs, or risk arrest, mandatory quarantine, or some other enforcement action for practicing those sincere religious beliefs."

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Renewing calls he's made all week, Fischer on Saturday said he was "strongly suggesting" churches don't host in-person or drive-in services this Easter weekend.

Addressing Walker's order, Fischer said he hasn't directed law enforcement activity against churches holding drive-in services.

"I regret that the judge did not allow us to present evidence that would have demonstrated there has been no legal enforcement mechanism communicated," Fischer said.

The mayor said the city twice attempted to contact the court but was unsuccessful.

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a man sitting in a car: Pastor Chuck Salvo prays with church member and Sheriff Lindsay Ongoy during a Wednesday night drive-in church service at On Fire Christian Church on New Cut Road. March 25, 2020 © Alton Strupp/Courier Journal Pastor Chuck Salvo prays with church member and Sheriff Lindsay Ongoy during a Wednesday night drive-in church service at On Fire Christian Church on New Cut Road. March 25, 2020

Explaining his concern about drive-in services, Fischer pointed to photos published in The Courier Journal of a March 29 service at On Fire Christian Church that show some individuals within 6 feet of each other.

Fischer announced Friday that Louisville Metro Police officers would record the license plate numbers of those who attend church services and the local health department would use that information to contact attendees, should any later fall ill with the disease.

Asked on Saturday if police will be monitoring drive-in services, Fischer said the focus will be on in-person services.

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Fischer said it hurts him to have to do urge staying away from church, “but I’m doing it because I don’t want people to die."

Likening Fischer's decision to dystopian novel fodder, Walker called the directive "stunning" and a violation of the First Amendment and Kentucky's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

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Referencing the act, Walker wrote that Louisville must be able to prove that it's using the least restrictive means to prevent the spread of the disease. Walker opined Louisville isn't.

"Moreover, 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," Walker wrote.

Walker reasoned that he didn't see any evidence that the church's parking lot is more dangerous than other parking lots that remain open.

"Nor is there any evidence that churches are less essential than every other business that is currently allowed to be open – liquor stores among them," he wrote.

Walker also granted the church's motion for an oral argument, which is set for April 14.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had written to Fischer on Thursday urging him to allow churches to host drive-in style services, thanked Walker on Twitter.

"Grateful for this strong, eloquent ruling defending Kentuckians’ religious liberty from Judge Justin Walker," McConnell wrote, calling him an "outstanding nominee" for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit.

McConnell had asked Fischer to allow drive-in services, as long as they comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines.

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Walker has been nominated by President Donald Trump to fill a vacancy on court, which is considered a direct pipeline to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Walker has been heavily supported by McConnell, who has heralded him as "a rising Kentucky star."

His appointment to the Kentucky bench was met with controversy last year after the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rated Walker "not qualified" for the district court, saying he had never tried a case, either civil or criminal, as lead or co-counsel.

But the former University of Louisville law professor was confirmed by the U.S. Senate 50-41.

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This story may be updated.

Reporter Matthew Glowicki can be reached at [email protected], 502-582-4989 or on Twitter @mattglo. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/mattg.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Judge allows drive-in service at Louisville church, says Fischer 'criminalized' Easter

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