As Easter Looms, Kansas GOP Lawmakers Overturn Gov’s Order Limiting Church Gatherings

The East Hill Singers, inmates from the minimum security east unit of the Lansing Correctional Facility and volunteers from the community, perform a concert for the public at the Open Door Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., Nov. 17, 2013. (Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star/MCT)
Open Door Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., Nov. 17, 2013. (Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
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Kansas’ Republican congressional leaders overturned an order issued by the Democratic governor limiting church gatherings of more than 10 people on Wednesday, with Easter just days away.

The order, signed Tuesday by Gov. Laura Kelly (D), was meant to curtail the spread of coronavirus that would surely accelerate if worshippers packed into pews for the holiest day of the Christian calendar.

“As Holy Week gets underway — and with Kansas rapidly approaching its projected ‘peak’ infection rate in the coming weeks — the risk for a spike in COVID-19 cases through church gatherings is especially dangerous,” Kelly said in a statement. Religious gatherings had previously been exempted from the state’s 10-person limitations.

Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman (R) claimed that the order infringes on constitutional rights, and that individual churches need “flexibility” to best serve their congregations.

In a joint statement with other congressional leaders, Ryckman said that Kelly’s executive order “limits the free exercise of religion.”

“In these uncertain times we need to grant these leaders the flexibility to serve their congregation while also trusting them not to do anything that would put their congregation at risk,” he said. “No evidence has been shown to indicate that faith leaders are violating that trust.”

He dismissed stories about COVID-19 clusters springing up within church congregations, saying that those outbreaks seemed to occur before the governor issued a stay-at-home order.

Kelly expressed her “deep disappointment” in the Republicans’ action.

She’s also battling the state’s Republican attorney general, Derek Schmidt, who advised that her executive order not be enforced. Though he said it was “sound public health advice” to “not gather for religious services or for any other reason until the COVID-19 crisis has passed,” he wrote a memo to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors statewide waving them off its enforcement.

“We also strongly discourage law enforcement from attempting to enforce the requirements of EO 20-18 as violations of the criminal law,” he wrote. “In our view, Kansas statute and the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights each forbid the governor from criminalizing participation in worship gatherings by executive order.”

In a later statement, he bashed Kelly as being “political” and expressed his confidence that Kansans will take it upon themselves not to congregate for worship without the threat of criminal sanctions. Violations of the order would have been misdemeanor offenses.

He also weighed in on the legal confusion around whether Kelly’s order still stands after the legislative council moved to overturn it. “As the dust settles, our assessment of the current situation is that Executive Order 20-14, the prior version of the ‘mass gatherings’ order, remains in effect because the new order rescinding it has not been published in the Kansas Register and therefore has not taken effect,” he said.

GOP leaders were only able to revoke Kelly’s order in the first place due to oversight powers they included for themselves in a bill to extend the state’s disaster emergency declaration, passed unanimously in both chambers on March 19.

It imbued the “Legislative Coordinating Council,” the body that represents the legislature when it’s not in session, with the power to “review and revoke all orders and proclamations issued by the Governor” related to the Kansas Emergency Management Act. The Council is made up of five Republicans and two Democrats; the chair and vice chair are the Republican speaker of the House and president of the Senate.

That same President of the Senate, Susan Wagle, took to Twitter Wednesday to criticize Kelly for “closing our churches” and not “respecting our values.”

A mere two tweets later, she encouraged her followers to stay home from mass during Holy Week.

“All of us must follow Jesus’ commandant to his disciples that evening,” she wrote. “We need to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ by staying home to protect all.”

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