TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A federal judge has blocked Kansas from limiting attendance at in-person religious worship services or activities to 10 or fewer congregation members to check the spread of the coronavirus.
“Singling out churches for special punishment while allowing others to have greater freedom is both illogical and unconstitutional. We’re pleased that the court halted the governor from subjecting our clients to that type of targeting and agreed that the churches are likely to prevail on their claim that doing so violates the First Amendment. The order specifies that our clients are to abide by their own proposed, rigorous social distancing practices for the time being while our case continues in court, which these churches are obviously happy to do, since they proposed those rules themselves for everyone’s health and safety. In light of the court’s order, we hope the governor will act quickly to remedy the unconstitutional provision of her shelter-in-place order and avoid the need for continued litigation.”SAID, SENIOR COUNSEL RYAN TUCKER, ALLIANCE DEFENDING FREEDOM.
The decision Saturday from U.S. District Judge John Broomes in Wichita signaled that he believes there’s a good chance the policy violates religious freedom and free speech rights.
Broomes’ ruling prevents the enforcement of an order issued by Gov. Laura Kelly on April 7. His decision will remain in effect until May 2. He has a hearing set for Wednesday in a lawsuit filed against Kelly by two churches and their pastors.
In a statement issued by Gov. Kelly, she says her executive order is about saving lives and to slow the spread of the COVID-19. She adds that during public health emergencies they must take proactive measures to save lives.
“We are in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic,” Governor Laura Kelly said. “We all want to resume our normal lives as soon as possible, but for now the data and science tell us there’s still a serious threat from COVID-19 – and when we gather in large groups, the virus spreads.
The state of Kansas has had six deaths and more than 80 cases of COVID-19 that have originated from religious gatherings, according to Governor Kelly. The court’s temporary order only applies to the two plaintiffs in the lawsuit. All other religious gatherings must continue to adhere to the requirements of Executive Order 20-25 and limit gatherings to 10 or fewer attendees.
“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. Courts across the country have recognized that during this pandemic emergency the law allows governments to prioritize proper public health and safety,” Kelly said.
“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.”