A federal judge on Saturday handed a legal victory to two churches that challenged an executive order by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s order limiting church attendance to 10 or fewer worshippers.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge John Broomes in Wichita stays enforcement of Kelly’s order until May 2.
Five days before Easter, Kelly had added churches to a list of banned activities in an executive order issued to address the threat of the coronavirus, according to Kansas.com. That brought a strong pushback from lawmakers and churches, culminating in a lawsuit filed Thursday by First Baptist Church in Dodge City and Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City.
Citing the executive orders issued by Kelly, Broomes noted in his ruling that “Plaintiffs claim, among other things, that the restrictions on religious activity imposed by EO 20-18 (and now 20-25) violate Plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion, including their right to attend worship services in their respective church facilities. For reasons that follow, the court concludes, based on the matters presented so far, that Plaintiffs are likely to prevail on this claim,” thus enabling him to grant a temporary restraining order that blocks Kelly’s edict.
It was just one of a series of cases that have arisen across the country since the coronavirus pandemic began, as states and local governments in Florida, Mississippi, Texas and other regions faced challenges from the faithful after trying to impede religious gatherings.
The ruling said that the churches filing suit “made a substantial showing that development of the current restriction on religious activities shows religious activities were specifically targeted for more onerous restrictions than comparable secular activities. The Governor previously designated the attendance of religious services as an ‘essential function’ that was exempt from the general prohibition on mass gatherings.”
The ruling said that “religious activities appear to have been singled out among essential functions for stricter treatment. It appears to be the only essential function whose core purpose – association for the purpose of worship – had been basically eliminated.”
The governor, Brromes ruled, “has not argued that mass gatherings at churches pose unique health risks that do not arise in mass gatherings at airports, offices, and production facilities. Yet the exemption for religious activities has been eliminated while it remains for a multitude of activities that appear comparable in terms of health risks.”
“Based on the record now before the court, the most reasonable inference from this disparate treatment is that the essential function of religious activity was targeted for stricter treatment due to the nature of the activity involved, rather than because such gatherings pose unique health risks that mass gatherings at commercial and other facilities do not, or because the risks at religious gatherings uniquely cannot be adequately mitigated with safety protocols,” he ruled.
Broomes required that churches that open observe social distancing and keep everyone in attendance at least six feet apart, as well as observe other practices such as not using a collection plate that would be passed through the congregation.
In a court filing supporting the lawsuit, attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom argued that Kelly had banned church worship but allowed “26 types of secular activities,” including bars, libraries and shopping malls
“So under the current (order) … a large group of people are permitted to get together at an office complex and have unrestricted meetings discussing real estate and real estate issues. But if a group of people wanted to get together in that same office building to have a Bible study or conduct a religious service, they would be prevented from doing so,” the ADF argued.
Kelly defended her order, according to KWCH.
— KWCH Eyewitness News (@KWCH12) April 19, 2020
“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 in a statement. “During public health emergencies, we must take proactive measures to save lives.”
“This is not about religion. This is about a public health crisis,” Kelly the statement added later. “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.”
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who opposed the executive order, said that “Today’s 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,” he said.
Schmidt noted that he believes that in light of the threat posed by the coronavirus, churches should not hold in-person services, but that the government cannot prevent them.
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