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Federal Judge Temporarily Blocks Kansas Governor’s Religious-Gathering Limit for Two Churches

Gothic window into a unique chapel built in Leavenworth in 1873. Protestant services are held in the upper level, Immanuel Chapel, and Catholic Mass is held in the lower level, Holy Ghost Chapel. (Photo by J. Schafer)

Federal Judge Temporarily Blocks Kansas Governor’s Religious-Gathering Limit for Two Churches  
By Erica Hunzinger, Kansas News Service  

Two Kansas churches temporarily don’t have to abide by Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s limit of 10 or fewer attendees, a federal judge ruled Saturday.

The federal judge sided with the First Baptist Church in Dodge City and Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City, which had argued in a lawsuit that Kelly’s executive order was an unconstitutional limit on the right to exercise religious freedom and went against the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.

A separate hearing for a preliminary injunction, which could put a hold on the entire executive order, is scheduled for Thursday.

Kelly’s intent with the executive order was to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, of which the state has almost 1,800 cases and 80-plus deaths. Church services and funerals were added to the list of restricted gatherings on April 7. The state health department has noted that religious activities have led to a few COVID-19 clusters.

In issuing his temporary restraining order, Judge John Broomes said the churches had sufficiently showed “a live controversy exists” and that Kelly’s lawyers hadn’t accounted for why airports, public transportation and production facilities, among other things, weren’t beholden to the same limitations on the number of people who could gather. The orders, he said, “carve out broad exemptions for a host of secular activities, many of which bear similarities to the sort of personal contact that will occur during in-person religious services.”

He also said that “a fair reading of (two of Kelly’s executive orders) shows that they operate as a wholesale prohibition” for religious services anywhere in the state with more than 10 people. Broomes noted that the orders “will likely impact the majority of churches and religious groups in Kansas.”

Saturday’s ruling comes a week after the Kansas Supreme Court upheld Kelly’s executive order, which initially was rescinded days before Easter by a seven-member legislative panel dominated by Republican legislative leaders.

NPR reported that similar lawsuits over religious liberties issues have been filed in several states, including Kentucky, New Mexico and Virginia. Kelly referenced those court challenges in a statement late Saturday, saying “courts across the country have recognized that during this pandemic emergency, the law allows governments to prioritize proper public health and safety."

“This is not about religion. This is about a public health crisis,” Kelly said. “This ruling was just a preliminary step. There is still a long way to go in this case, and we will continue to be proactive and err on the side of caution where Kansans’ health and safety is at stake.”

Broomes, who was appointed by President Donald Trump and confirmed two years ago, laid out 24 protocols to protect the two churches' worshipers, ranging from deep cleaning the buildings before and after services to keeping maximum social distancing practices to advising that all attendees have their temperatures taken upon entering a building.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a statement that while he personally believes all religious organizations should only worship remotely, not in-person, he called the ruling “a much-needed reminder that the Constitution is not under a stay-home order.” Schmidt also said Kelly should “accept the court’s decision” and stop spending money on the legal fight.

The governor’s executive orders are made possible by a state of emergency declaration that ends May 1, unless lawmakers extend it. The expiration date, Kelly’s chief counsel said recently, also means that the statewide stay-at-home order, which allows only essential business to occur, ends May 1 instead of May 3 as the governor wishes.  Click here to read U.S. District Judge John Broomes' full temporary restraining order, issued April 18.

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Brian Grimmett, a reporter for KMUW Radio in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, contributed to this report.  Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.  Erica Hunzinger is the news editor of the Kansas News Service.  Follow her on Twitter @ehunzinger.  The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.  

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Kansas Governor Laura Kelly Responds to District Court Ruling

TOPEKA, Kan. (KPR) -  Kansas Governor Laura Kelly issued a statement in response to the federal judge's ruling against her executive order limiting the size of religious gatherings.  “We are in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic,” Kelly said. “We all want to resume our normal lives as soon as possible, but for now the data and science tell us there’s still a serious threat from COVID-19 – and when we gather in large groups, the virus spreads.  My executive order is about saving Kansans’ lives and slowing the spread of the virus to keep our neighbors, our families and our loved ones safe,” Kelly said. “During public health emergencies, we must take proactive measures to save lives.  Kansas has had six deaths and more than 80 cases of COVID-19 that have originated from religious gatherings."  The governor continued, “This is not about religion. This is about a public health crisis."

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Kansas Attorney General Derek Schimdt Reacts to Federal Court's Ruling Against Governor's Order
 
TOPEKA, Kan. (KPR) - Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said the "judicial ruling is a much-needed reminder that the Constitution is not under a stay-home order and the Bill of Rights cannot be quarantined. The Constitution protects our liberties especially during times of crisis, when history reveals governments too quick to sacrifice rights of the few to calm fears of the many. As I have consistently counseled, the governor of Kansas must not discriminate against religious gatherings by threatening worshipers with arrest or imprisonment while allowing similar secular gatherings to proceed."  Schmidt continued, "Let me be clear: My own view remains that churches, synagogues, temples and mosques should cancel all in-person services and instead worship remotely at this time. I strongly urge all Kansas religious leaders to do so. But as a government official, I may not impose that preference selectively on Kansans of faith but not others. Neither may Governor Kelly. I call on the governor to accept the court’s decision... and end this unnecessary legal fight that is costing taxpayers thousands of dollars in attorney fees without demonstrable public health benefit."

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