By Scott Canon, Erica Hunzinger, Celia Llopis-Jepsen & Stephen Koranda
TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas may not have any limits on the number of people who can safely gather — at all.
In a dramatic rebuke, Republican leaders on the Legislative Coordinating Council voted Wednesday to overturn the Democratic governor’s executive order banning churches and funerals from having more than 10 people at services, which followed a wider directive from March 24.
Kelly did not immediately reinstate a ban on large gatherings, saying her administration was exploring its legal options. But Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a news release Wednesday evening that his office believes the March 24 order to be in effect.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to emails and phone calls seeking clarification. However, Kelly said earlier in the day that “even if we run into a legal snag here, I would encourage the people of Kansas to still act as if ... those orders are in place.”
It was seemingly the final straw for Republicans when Kelly told churches that they couldn’t gather as normal to celebrate one of the most important days in Christianity, Easter.
“I’ve received an absolute outpouring of concerns from people of faith. And it's not because they were planning on attending a worship service for Easter,” Senate President Susan Wagle said during the panel’s meeting, invoking religious liberties. “They think it’s totally inappropriate for the governor to tell them that they cannot worship in a way and in the manner that they choose to on Sunday.”
Kelly sternly called the panel’s decision “shockingly irresponsible” and an action that will “put every Kansan at risk.” Kelly also took aim at Schmidt, who discouraged police and prosecutors from breaking up groups of people, which she called a “bizarre, confusing and overtly political attack.”
Schmidt responded that his office “repeatedly advised against issuing the overreaching executive order regulating churches and notified her I would express my concerns publicly if she proceeded. She did, and so did I.”
The fight came as Kansas topped 1,000 cases of COVID-19. Already, Kansas officials say three clusters of coronavirus have been tied directly to church events. Those and nine other outbreaks from group settings have led to 165 illnesses and 12 deaths combined. And dozens of states have limited church gatherings.
State officials and lawmakers have largely worked in bipartisan fashion the last month or so to help stem the spread of coronavirus and help out Kansans who need unemployment benefits and small business loans. That cooperation, Kelly said, had “enabled Kansas to move swiftly and to save lives.”
But while most churches had canceled Easter services or moved them online voluntarily, Kelly’s order to keep church attendance to 10 or less (not including choirs, ministers, etc.) rankled Kansas’ Republican leaders.
Kelly said her legal counsel had put the executive order together, and believe it to be constitutional. But Wagle, who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat and often clashes with Kelly, disagreed.
While it is “unprecedented times,” Wagle said she believed the executive order restricted “individual rights to practice religious liberties,” adding: “I can’t approve this.”
House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, who voted to overturn Kelly’s executive order, did press Kansans to stay at home on Easter Sunday.
“We have a duty to look out for one another and not spread this virus,” he said, asking faith leaders to find different ways to help people celebrate the religious holiday.
“Don’t hold services where people have to come in person this weekend or next weekend,” Finch said. “Let’s get through this crisis first."
The nonprofit advocacy group Kansas Interfaith Action weighed in, saying people should adhere to social distancing during any services this weekend and stick with the 10-person limit.
“As faith leaders, of course we place a high value on our religious freedom, but we believe that a) no one is limiting our right to worship, only to gather publicly, and b) the pandemic is an extenuating circumstance that calls us to accept temporary limitations on public worship that would be unacceptable in normal circumstances.”
Those who voted to overturn the executive order were Wagle, Finch, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, House Speaker Ron Ryckman and House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins. The two Democrats on the panel, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley and House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, wanted to keep the order.
Kelly also said early Wednesday evening that the vote was a distraction because state officials were starting to talk about whether they need to extend the stay-at-home order.
“We really need to be talking about what strategy are we going to have in place to rebuild our economy when we’re able to open back up,” she said, “and how are we gonna do that?”
An early version of this article incorrectly stated the number of COVID-19 cases tied directly to church services.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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