Kansas Supreme Court strikes down measure that allowed large church gatherings

church pews
Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema

The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled against a legislative effort to allow for houses of worship to hold large gatherings, upholding an earlier executive order from the governor.

In a per curiam decision released Saturday, the day before Easter, the state’s highest court concluded that the state Legislative Coordinating Council did not have the authority to revoke Governor Laura Kelly’s order that banned gatherings of more than 10 people.

“The LCC purported to revoke one executive order. We are asked to determine whether it acted within its lawful authority. We hold that it did not,” ruled the court.

“As ultimately acknowledged by all counsel during oral arguments today, even if we accept House Concurrent Resolution 5025 as an otherwise valid exercise of legislative authority, its plain text did not authorize the LCC to revoke Executive Order 20-18. That acknowledgment ends this controversy.”

The state supreme court stressed that their decision was not meant to address any other concerns with the executive order, including questions of alleged religious liberty violations.

“And finally, it is worth emphasizing a point clarified at the outset of the majority opinion. Today's decision does not decide the religious liberty dimensions of this dispute,” concluded the opinion.

“All the parties, including the legislative parties, agreed that those arguments and claims are not properly before this court in this action, and must wait to another day for resolution.”

Last week, Kelly announced that she was expanding a statewide ban on gatherings of  more than 10 people to include religious services, which had previously been exempted.

In a statement, Kelly explained that it was a “difficult decision” to reach given that Easter was only days away, but considered it necessary to curb the spread of coronavirus.

“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,” said Kelly.

“I’ve said repeatedly during this crisis that we will adjust to circumstances as they develop to make sure we do everything we can to protect Kansans.”

Soon after the expanded order took effect, the LCC overturned the measure, arguing that the limitation on houses of worship was constitutionally problematic.

“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,” stated Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, as reported by KCUR.

“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.”  

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