Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, recently expanded a state stay-at-home order to limit church events to 10 people after state public health officials traced coronavirus outbreaks, and three deaths, to four religious gatherings. Kansas has recorded 1,268 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 55 deaths related to the virus, according to the state's Department of Health and Environment.
Republican lawmakers on the state's legislative council revoked Kelly's order on Wednesday — effectively allowing churches to hold regular services on Easter — saying that the order infringed on religious liberty. Kelly then took the matter to court, calling the Republican action "shockingly irresponsible."
The court ruled Saturday night that a small Republican-led legislative council that rescinded Kelly's order did not have the authority to do so. They had heard arguments Saturday in a historic online session, during which lawyers argued their points before the judges via Zoom videoconferencing.
The pitched legal battle in the conservative state unfolded during a tense Holy Week as some churches across the country went forward with in-person Easter week services even as public-health officials warned that religious events could promote the spread of the virus and covid-19, the disease it causes. The virus has claimed more than 20,000 lives in the United States — more than any other country’s confirmed total — and more than 500,000 infections have been confirmed nationwide. Total confirmed infections worldwide topped 1.7 million Saturday, with more than 107,000 deaths.
Luke Kammrath, pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Kan., said his church will continue to have in-person services this weekend despite the health warnings, though the events will be in an outside space with lilies and handmade pews. His flock of about 25 will be wearing masks and using physical distancing during worship, he said. His Easter theme is about resurrection and the gift that the pandemic has given believers: a chance to pause, reflect and grow.
“As Christians, we are people of soul and body. The essence of our faith is spiritual but physical presence is essential,” he said. “In my opinion, there is no substituting the presence of a Christian brother or sister — even six feet away. We gather in body and spirit, not just spirit.”
Several governors — including Florida’s Ron DeSantis (R) — have classified religious services as “essential business” in their states and have allowed such gatherings to continue despite statewide stay-at-home orders.
But national religious organizations including the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jewish and Muslim groups have suspended live worship.
In Kansas, Kelly said that most of the faith leaders she consulted before issuing the order already had done that, with many churches using live streams, so that congregants can stay at home, or moving services to drive-ins at local fairgrounds.
One Catholic church in the Kansas City area positioned photos of its families in their regular pews in the empty sanctuary.
As the coronavirus pandemic worsened in the United States in March, Kelly moved early to contain the spread in the state of nearly 3 million, ordering the closure of schools on March 17 and issuing a statewide “stay home” order on March 28.
On Tuesday, she expanded the order to limit religious services and funerals, saying that 25 percent of the state’s coronavirus outbreaks have been tied to religious gatherings and that the risk of a spike in cases tied to churches during Holy Week was “especially dangerous.”
Republican leaders, the state’s attorney general and advocates for religious liberty decried Kelly’s order, arguing that it was likely an unconstitutional ban on the free exercise of religion.
The clearly exasperated governor said the GOP’s move to revoke the public-health order was “shockingly irresponsible,” and she said she was taking the matter to court because “we do not have time to play political games during a pandemic.” The normally avuncular doctor overseeing the state’s response to the pandemic, Lee Norman, was even more direct, tweeting: “I am SO angry! Shame!”
Rural states have been slower to enact restrictions than harder-hit urban areas, with leaders alleging that stricter measures are an overreaction in wide-open spaces with far fewer cases. Five states — Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Arkansas — have not issued statewide stay-at-home orders.
But the consequences of the virus’s spread into rural areas with spotty health care and less-well-equipped hospitals could be dire, some experts say. A Washington Post analysis showed that 76 million people — about 30 percent of the country’s adults — live in areas where there might not be enough intensive-care beds or ventilators.
Pastor Timothy Evans said that despite the legal wrangling, his church was going to continue to have in-person services, including Saturday’s Sabbath event at the sanctuary of his 16 Mile Sabbath Keepers congregation, a small low-slung building that hugs the flat land in Garden City, Kan. His church of about 40 decided in March to continue services as normal. They will be practicing social distancing in the pews, he said.
Evans said that he and other members of the church have been harassed in recent days for their decision to continue gathering during the pandemic. A dead pheasant was left on their doorstep. A debate on a local Facebook page grew so acrimonious that it was taken down.
Evans said that he thought Kelly had issued a responsible order but that churches ought to have the right to decide for themselves what is right for them. “That’s the whole point of religious liberty,” he said.