2 Kansas churches sue over governor's executive order limiting gathering sizes

Published: Apr. 16, 2020 at 9:57 PM CDT
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Two Baptist church pastors in Kansas are plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Kansas Governor Laura Kelly's executive order to include churches in the state's 10-person public-gathering limit.

At issue in the lawsuit isn't so much that churches are lumped into a "mass gathering" category, but rather that "(the order) carves out broad exemptions for 26 types of secular activities from this gathering ban, including bars, restaurants, libraries, shopping malls, retail establishments, and office spaces."

The lawsuit argues that Kelly's executive order singles out "churches and other religious services or activities" and does not take into account whether social distancing, hygiene, "and other efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 were practiced."

Last week, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt voiced support for churches meeting remotely rather than in-person but concluded in a memo that criminalizing church gatherings of more than 10 violates the state's constitution.

The legislative coordinating council then voted 5-2 to overturn the executive order. Kelly responded, filing suit against the council and on Saturday (April 11),

Plaintiffs identified in the suit are Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City and the First Baptist Church in Dodge City. Facts listed in the lawsuit include each church's response to COVID-19 guidelines, including efforts to spread out seating to follow social-distancing rules, keeping doors propped open so people don't have to touch knobs, discouraging handshaking, offering face masks and suspending the passing of offering plates.

First Baptist Church held a drive-in church service, but some people moved indoors because of wind, saying they could not hear the service. Calvary Baptist held an indoor service with 21 people.

Both churches claim Kelly's order unfairly targeted them.

Tyson Langhofer is with Alliance Defending Freedom, the group representing the churches.

"Public safety is important, but so is following the constitution and the first amendment isn't suspended in times of crisis or national emergency," said Langhofer.

The lawsuit accuses Kelly's executive order of first-amendment violations, including encroachments on the right to assemble, right to freely exercise faith (with the limit on gathering together for corporate prayer) and on free-speech. A fourth count in the lawsuit argues the order is a violation of the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.

But not all feel that way. Dr. T Lamont Holder is the president of the Baptist State Convention of Kansas and says it's not an attack on our religious liberties.

"It's better to take these precautions now than to suffer the loss of a life later on," said Dr. Holder.

Dr. Holder hopes it's all figured out soon.

"As churches, now and then we have to alter our practices, even though we don't adapt our principles. Principles are non-negotiable, but practices can be altered in times of global crisis," Dr. Holder said.

The lawsuit requests a temporary restraining order prohibiting the State of Kansas from enforcing the portion of the executive order limiting church gatherings and asks for a judgment declaring that the order "violates the U.S. Constitution's Free Exercise, Free Speech, Right to Assemble, and Due Process Clauses," as well as the Kansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act."

The churches seek compensation in court costs, attorney fees, and other relief as to which they may be entitled.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit also call for a jury trial.

"It is respectfully requested that the jury trial be held in Wichita, KS given its geographic proximity to all plaintiffs," the lawsuit states.

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