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U.S. high court rejects religious school challenge to Kentucky coronavirus shutdown order

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a religious school in Kentucky that is challenging the state’s decision to limit in-school instruction as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The action by the justices is a loss for Danville Christian Academy. The school said the order violated its religious rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the free exercise of religion.

The justices, in a brief order, said that the school closing order “effectively expires this week or shortly thereafter, and there is no indication that it will be renewed,” but indicated that the school could renew its legal challenge if another closure is announced in the new year.

Two conservative justices, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, dissented from the court’s decision. “I would not leave in place yet another potentially unconstitutional decree, even for the next few weeks,” Gorsuch wrote.

The case pits Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, against the Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, who joined the legal fight against the order.

Beshear’s November order required all schools, public and private, to close for in-school instruction. Some elementary schools would be able to reopen if COVID-19 rates decrease.

The order was discriminatory, the school said, because other types of activities and indoor gatherings have been allowed to continue. Children’s day care centers and universities are open, as are gyms and bowling allies, with some restrictions. Houses of worship are also open.

Beshear’s lawyers counter that the order, aimed to combat a spike in coronavirus infections, treats all schools the same and does not target religion.

A federal judge in Kentucky ruled in favor of the school on Nov. 25 but the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals prevented the ruling from going into effect.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington. Additional reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; editing by Grant McCool

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