LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is suing to stop Republican lawmakers from overturning her executive order limiting church gatherings — triggering a high-stakes legal showdown amid a deadly pandemic.
Kelly on Thursday afternoon sued the Legislative Coordinating Council — the seven-member body of legislative leaders that voted Wednesday to revoke her order, calling it an infringement on freedom of religion.
The lawsuit marks a dramatic escalation in the state’s ongoing fight over constitutional rights and public health, a dispute that potentially holds life-or-death implications as pastors and priests weigh whether to open church doors this Sunday.
Three of the state’s 12 coronavirus clusters have stemmed from church gatherings, and health officials fear large Sunday services will further spread the contagion throughout the state.
“The last thing I want right now is a legal battle,” Kelly said at a news conference. “But as I said yesterday, Kansas lives are on the line and I took an oath to uphold and defend the constitution.”
The order, issued Tuesday, had brought religious gatherings under the statewide ban on mass gatherings of more than 10. The directive immediately rankled Republicans, who said it amounted to an overreach by the governor during a crisis.
But the Democratic governor contends the state’s emergency management law allows only the full Legislature to revoke her orders, not the council. Last month, the Legislature approved a concurrent resolution — not a law — giving the council the power to review and revoke her orders.
The Republican legislative leaders who voted to revoke the order — House Speaker Ron Ryckman, House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning — came under crushing criticism after the vote.
The House Republican leaders in a joint statement said there were “concerned and disappointed” by Kelly’s announcement. They said that they had been working the governor’s office to resolve their differences.
They emphasized that they agree with Kelly that Kansans should stay home over Easter and Passover, that faith leaders should offer online services, that churches should follow health guidelines and that they should all work together to slow the spread of the virus.
“But, this is where we disagree: Kansans should not be arrested for practicing their faith,” they said.
“Despite repeated attempts to solve this problem and create a constitutional order, the Governor has opted to create confusion and tie this issue up in the courts. We take seriously our obligation to protect people’s lives during this pandemic, and we know that the Governor does too,” the statement said.
Calling the lawsuit unnecessary, they said the governor should allow a solution that is “safe and legal.”
Kelly is seeking a ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court to expedite the challenge. In a filing with the court, attorneys for the governor argue the Legislature’s attempt to reallocate its authority to the council “violates the plain text of the constitution.”
Kelly’s attorneys ask the justices to declare the resolution unconstitutional and for an order voiding the council’s revocation. They also want the court to enjoin the council from taking any further action related to her emergency powers.
The attorneys ask for a quick ruling “with the utmost speed given the need to resolve this matter before the Easter Holiday” this Sunday.
The clash over the order has brought tensions between the governor and the Legislature to their highest point since the start of the COVID-19 crisis weeks ago. The vote to revoke was the first time the Legislature has overruled Kelly during the pandemic.
“Whatever Kansas legislators do doesn’t reverse what The Public needs to do,” Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said in a tweet late Wednesday night. “Stay home so we can beat this scourge. Despite what the ‘leaders’ of the Legislature say. We are so close, and they are doing politics. Don’t fall for it! I am SO angry! Shame!”
In the aftermath of the vote, Kelly and Republicans couldn’t even agree on whether her overall ban on mass gatherings remained in effect. Kelly said late Wednesday afternoon that she didn’t know whether the decision had repealed the entire ban, but Attorney General Derek Schmidt said he believed it was still in effect.
The confusion filtered down to the county level.
Johnson County officials Thursday afternoon clarified that the countywide ban on gatherings of more than 10 people remains in effect.
“For many religions, this week, the upcoming weekend, and next week have major significance. In typical years there would be gatherings of people to worship, to share meals and to spend time together,” county officials wrote in a statement. “As we know, this is not a typical year. We implore you to focus not on what you are allowed to do, but instead on what is the right thing to do.”
Sedgwick County said that because the statewide order was revoked, its local order was once again in effect. The county order prohibits in-person religious gatherings of more than 10.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Pete Meitzner said most churches have already changed their services to adhere to the county order and that they should use good judgment while the order is in effect. So far, he said, there have not been any law enforcement sent to churches to break up services.
If law enforcement were to show up, they would focus on educating and not enforcing the order.
“There’s a lot of reasoning that can happen,” he said. “We’re kind of a Christian-based community anyways, and I’m hoping everyone is OK with that.”
Nationally, Kansas, Arkansas, Michigan and New Mexico provide broad exemptions from executive orders prohibiting large public gatherings, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Some religious groups had raised objections to the order. Although Catholic churches in Kansas have suspended public Mass, the Kansas Catholic Conference had called it “troubling” and questioned its constitutionality.
But Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Democrat, said she had heard from “dozens who are pissed” about the revocation of the order.
Three of the state’s 12 case clusters stem from church gatherings, Norman has said. One of them was a ministers’ conference in Wyandotte County last month, another occurred in Sedgwick County. Norman hasn’t divulged information about the third.
The ministers’ conference, held March 16-22 at the Miracle Temple Church of God in Kansas City, Kan., came before Kelly’s statewide stay-at-home order or her order limiting gatherings to 10 people. Republicans seized on that point in explaining their votes.
“This comes down to one or two churches in one county,” said Hawkins, of Wichita.
Rather than reprimanding the majority of churches following safe practices, Hawkins urged, work directly with county and faith leaders on a solution. He called for looking at personal protective equipment and social distancing “before we go to the extreme.”
The Wednesday vote came as the Kansas death toll from coronavirus jumped 40% to 38 and reported cases climbed above 1,000.
Health officials have emphasized that even a single gathering can ripple across the state. If the virus is transmitted during a service to even a few people, the number infected can quickly multiple as those people interact with others outside of church.
The 12 clusters in Kansas have led to at least 165 cases and 12 deaths, Norman said. Last week, a husband and wife in Montgomery County died after the wife attended a church conference in Wyandotte County.
“We are not even able to trace all the contacts that those two individuals had because they’re dead,” Norman said.
(The Kansas City Star’s Sarah Ritter, Nicole Asbury and The Wichita Eagle’s Chance Swaim contributed to this report)
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