A federal judge delivered a blow to Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s (D) ban on church gathering Saturday, allowing two local churches to conduct in-person, though socially-distanced, services.
“Plaintiffs are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the form of denial of their constitutional right to the free exercise of their religion,” wrote U.S. District Judge John Broomes in his ruling, adding that the restrictions on religious gatherings “are more severe than restrictions on some comparable non-religious activities.”
He granted the plaintiffs, the First Baptist Church in Dodge City, Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City and their pastors, a temporary restraining order set to expire May 2. A preliminary injunction hearing will be held on Thursday.
The two churches will be allowed to continue holding church services as long as they follow CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, like ensuring six feet of space between worshippers and setting out hand sanitizer.
In a statement, Kelly indicated that the court battle is far from over.
“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.”
She also referenced other, similar lawsuits lodged against governors’ stay-at-home orders nationwide, which decry the orders’ limits on religious gatherings.
“There have been at least eight other legal challenges like this one, and so far none of them have ruled against a mass gathering restriction like ours,” she said. “Courts across the country have recognized that during this pandemic emergency the law allows governments to prioritize proper public health and safety.”
The ruling was also an indirect win for the Republicans in the state legislature who overturned Kelly’s ruling that banned church gatherings over ten people just before Easter.
But Kelly got a legal win in that fight after suing the legislators in state Supreme Court. In its ruling, the court narrowly focused on the authority of the standing committee of legislators that had revoked the order, rather than the question of religious freedom infringement.
Senate President Susan Wagle, one of the Republicans who attempted to revoke Kelly’s order, celebrated Saturday’s decision.
“Governor Kelly ignored the state’s top legal advisor when he said the order was unconstitutional and wasted precious time and money by taking her legislative partners to the State Supreme Court when we tried to warn her,” she wrote on Twitter. “Ultimately, the people were forced to stop her, and today the people prevailed.”
Read the temporary restraining order ruling here: