A federal judge on Saturday blocked Kansas from limiting attendance at in-person religious worship services or activities to 10 people or fewer to check the spread of the coronavirus, signaling he believes there’s a good chance the policy violates religious freedom and free speech rights.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge John Broomes in Wichita prevents the enforcement of an order issued by Gov. Laura Kelly if pastors and congregations observe social distancing. The judge's decision will remain in effect until May 2. He has a hearing scheduled Wednesday in a lawsuit filed against Kelly by two churches and their pastors.
Broomes’ action comes amid strong criticism of the Democratic governor’s order from the Republican-controlled Legislature and increasing pressure from GOP lawmakers to lift at least part of a stay-at-home order for all 2.9 million Kansas residents that took effect March 30 and is set to continue until May 3.
It also comes as the number of coronavirus cases and COVID-19-related deaths continue to rise in Kansas.
“Churches and religious activities appear to have been singled out among essential functions for stricter treatment,” Broomes wrote in his order.
The lawsuit over church gatherings was filed Thursday by First Baptist Church in Dodge City and Pastor Stephen Ormond and Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City and Pastor Aaron Harris. The lawsuit said both churches held indoor Easter services with 20 or more members of the congregation present.
But Broomes' order does not let the churches have services without any restrictions. Instead, he ordered them to abide by recommendations for social distancing that people stay 6 feet apart and continue following other practices the lawsuit said they had imposed, such as not using collection plates.
Kelly’s order limited in-person religious services or activities to 10 congregation members but didn’t limit the number of pastors, choir members and others who could put on the service, so long as they practiced social distancing. Many Kansas churches have moved services online, but the pastors and churches suing Kelly said they believe God calls them to engage in “corporate” prayer.
They argued Kelly could have imposed less restrictive measures on churches to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. They also said that Kelly’s stay-at-home order had exceptions for numerous “essential” businesses, so her policies unfairly targeted and showed “hostility” toward churches.
Broomes noted the exceptions for some businesses, calling the different treatment of churches “arbitrary,” and adding, “The disparity has been imposed without any apparent explanation for the differing treatment of religious gatherings.”
Kelly has continued to defend her order.
“That executive order had absolutely nothing to do with religious freedom. It had everything to do with protecting the health and safety of Kansans," the governor said at a Friday news conference.
Meanwhile, the state health department reported that COVID-19-related deaths increased by two Saturday to 86. Confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 5 percent, or 85, to 1,790.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and death.
Top Republican legislative leaders moved last week to revoke Kelly’s order on church gatherings themselves, only to see the Democratic governor thwart their efforts by contesting their action before the Kansas Supreme Court. The state’s highest court let her order stand on technical grounds, without deciding whether it violated freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. or Kansas constitutions.