Community Health


It’s a quiet Sunday morning in Bullitt County. Most church parking lots sit empty on this Mother’s Day morning, their services moved online due to coronavirus. But the sanctuary at Maryville Baptist Church in Hillview is filling up with people ahead of the 11 a.m. service. 

Maryville Baptist Church never stopped meeting in person, despite Gov. Andy Beshear’s March 19 executive order prohibiting mass gatherings. But this week, their Sunday service won’t be against the law. 

On Friday, a judge issued a temporary restraining order in a lawsuit filed by the Hillview church. The order allowed the church, and all religious services in Kentucky, to start meeting legally, and immediately. 

Maryville Pastor Jack Roberts is glad to have this legal victory. But he didn’t mind meeting in violation of the law. 

It’s never proper to follow laws that are illegal,” said Roberts. “And basically, that’s what was going on.”

Beshear had originally said that houses of worship could reopen on May 20 if they followed strict social distancing and cleaning guidelines. He also encouraged worship leaders to choose recorded music over singing and congregants to wear face coverings. If they chose to sing, the state guidelines suggest they stay farther than six feet apart. 

In the wake of the court rulings, Beshear moved up the effective date of the guidelines to Friday instead. 

“I really hope that these rulings don’t have groups going back faster than they should, not doing everything that needs to be done, and causing the spread of this virus,” Beshear said during a press conference Saturday evening. 

Maryville Baptist Church posted a sign on the doors asking people to follow social distancing guidelines, and hand sanitizer was available in the back of the pews. A few minutes before the service began, a few dozen people were spaced throughout the pews. 

But no one wore masks, and some socialized in small groups in the center aisle and vestibule. Roberts himself doesn’t believe in the value of masks; he told a reporter, incorrectly, that wearing a mask if you’re infected makes you sicker.  

In his Sunday sermon, Roberts obliquely referenced the legal victory. But he directly addressed Beshear’s guidance that churches institute significant restrictions, including limiting singing to prevent the spread of the virus. 

“I’ve said our Governor’s never been to a Baptist Church,” Roberts said to laughter from the crowd. “I mean, really, singing is as much part of worship as anything we do. We’d just have to quit worship if we couldn’t sing.” 

The choir sang without masks for most of the first half hour of the service. Roberts preached for well over an hour. He criticized the governor for declaring churches “non-essential,” but said that some of the blame for that lay with the churches themselves — and the people who attend them.

“The reason that we’re not essential, folks, is we’ve made ourselves such,” he said.

He chastised churches that focus too much on showmanship, and people who go to church only sporadically. 

“Try that at home,” he said. “Disappear from home for about six months and show up and see what your wife thinks. You know what she’ll say: ‘You’re non-essential.’”

He got lots of cheers, laughter and amens from the crowd as he preached. Roberts avoided the topic of the virus in his sermon, but beforehand, he told a reporter that he thinks the concern is overblown. 

“My philosophy, if you’re interested, is that you shouldn’t be foolish,” he said. “But I’m 77 years old. I’m not going to stay in my basement for what little life I’ve got left.”

He said he thinks Beshear has been misled about the severity of the pandemic and that he overstepped with the executive order limiting in-person gatherings that included houses of worship. 

Maryville Baptist Church is one of several that sued Beshear over this executive order. On Friday, District Judge David Hale issued an injunction that allowed the church to meet in-person. The same day, another court issued a similar ruling in a separate lawsuit filed by Tabernacle Baptist Church in Nicholasville. That ruling noted it extended to all religious services in Kentucky. 

“If social distancing is good enough for Home Depot and Kroger, it is good enough for in-person religious services which, unlike the foregoing, benefit from constitutional protection,” District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove wrote in his ruling on the Tabernacle case. 

Steven Grassman, a member of the Hillview church for more than 40 years, said he took a few weeks off from attending services. He said that’s because he was getting a lot of “untrue” information from the news about the risk of coronavirus. 

But the court ruling brought him back. 

“I’m pleased with it,” he said, “I understand it’s a constitutional right … and as long as we do abide by the guidelines, I think it’s perfectly fine.”

Roberts said he heard from “hundreds” of churches around Kentucky that said they also planned to meet on Sunday. But many others are slow-rolling their reopening plans. 

At Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Rev. Megan McCarty said she “panicked” when the governor announced the May 20 reopening date for churches, and when she saw the guidelines to safely reopen, she knew it would take some serious planning. Opening even sooner than that was not a consideration.

The church has formed a planning committee, but has not set a date to reopen. 

“Just because we can, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should,” said McCarty. “We are approaching it really slowly and trying to figure out how to do it the safest way that we can.”

She said Friday’s rulings and the governor’s guidance pushed the church to start planning in earnest. She’s hearing from people that are eager to get back to church, but they are trying to balance that with the public health needs of a community with many older people, as well as families with young children. 

For now, they’re sticking with the pre-recorded online services they publish every Sunday morning. 

Southeast Christian and Highview Baptist Church, two of Kentucky’s largest churches, are also both sticking with online services at this point. In a video devotional posted on Facebook on Friday, Highview senior pastor Aaron Harvie said they were planning a prayer gathering, likely outside, for May 20, but were not planning to resume full-blown Sunday services yet.

Even though some gatherings are now allowed, Harvie discouraged people from putting “post-pandemic expectations” on the next few weeks. 

“I know that the Lord is not in a hurry,” he said. “He is not in a rush and we are not going to be in a rush either.” 

That devotional was posted before the court rulings came down, but on Sunday morning, the online-only service started as planned.

Eleanor Klibanoff covered Rust Belt decline and revival in Pennsylvania. She also worked for NPR and attended the George Washington University.