Kansas Governor Laura Kelly has slammed state lawmakers as ‘shockingly irresponsible’ after they voted to lift restrictions on religious gatherings over ten people the week of Easter Sunday and Passover.
The state’s Republican-led legislature voted Wednesday to rescind the order issued by Kelly on Tuesday, despite the state’s coronavirus death toll jumping by 40 percent in 24 hours.
Lawmakers believed Kelly’s order went against residents’ constitutional rights to freely practice religion, pushing back against the federally advised social distancing guidelines.
Kansas’s death toll now stands at 38 people with 1,046 confirmed cases as three church gatherings are believed to be responsible for outbreak clusters in the state.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly slammed the Republican-led state legislature for voted against her restriction on religious gatherings over ten people amid the coronavirus pandemic
Signs canceling services due to the coronavirus hang of the doors of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Lawrence, Kansas. The Gov. implemented on religious gatherings of over ten people in the state on Tuesday but it was voted against by the state House and Senate
Signs canceling services due to the coronavirus hang of the doors of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Lawrence, Kansas. The diocese has said that Easter Sunday services will only be streamed online despite state lawmakers voting against gathering restrictions
The vote was only made possible because of a resolution passed by the legislature in March which allowed leaders to cancel the Democrat governor’s directives in some circumstances.
‘The Governor should not use this crisis, or any other crisis, as a basis to restrict our constitutional rights,’ argued Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican, who said that residents of Kansas were capable of making the decision to worship at home without it being forced upon them.
‘My church has canceled Mass at the advice of health experts; the same advice most Kansans are now following. However, they did it with free will, not a mandate by big brother infringing on the individual freedoms given to us by our Bill of Rights,’ she continued.
‘We live in a democracy and enjoy certain inalienable rights paramount to our country’s foundation including freedom of religion.
‘This is the people’s government, always will be, and I will carry their voices when the call is clear.
‘This is still America.’
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican, argued that the ban implemented on religious gatherings by Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, was unconstitutional
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, who is also a Republican, added to her argument, stating that ‘the constitution still exists’ in times of an emergency.
He said that the vast majority of churches were already adhering to social distancing guidelines and streaming services online.
The vote was backed by State Attorney General Derek Schmidt who wrote that he believed the order to be unconstitutional and advised that law enforcement not enforce it.
‘In our view, Kansas statute and the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights each forbid the governor from criminalizing participation in worship gatherings by executive order,’ Schmidt wrote.
Gov. Kelly is seeking legal counsel to explore a court challenge as despite the vote by the state House and Senate lawmakers, it was unclear whether it had an effect on the general statewide ban on gatherings over ten people.
A sign canceling church services hangs on the door of First United Methodist Church in Lawrence, Kanasa, on March 15. Many places of worship have been closed for weeks
A constitutional law professor at the University of Kansas has argued that Kelly’s order did not target religious gatherings, in particular, but limited all social gatherings over ten people, meaning that it would not have been in violation of the constitution.
‘If it’s possible to document that small religious gatherings had led to the spread of the coronavirus in a way that other gatherings have not, then there is a chance that the court would say singling out religious gatherings satisfies even strict scrutiny,’ said Richard Levy.
In such cases, ‘it’s not about suppressing religion. It’s about the realities of the coronavirus’.
Lawmakers voted down party lines, according to The Wichita Eagle, as Kelly slammed Republicans for bring politics into the outbreak response.
‘There are real life consequences to the partisan games Republicans played today,’ Kelly said.
Some counties in Kansas have already announced that they are going to continue with Kelly’s ban despite Wednesday’s vote.
Sedgwick County said that the restriction would remain in place until April 23, at least, stating that ‘residents are to follow Sedgwick County’s Local Order which began March 25.
‘This order specifically limits all public gatherings to groups of 10 or fewer people, including in-person religious services.’
Kelly issued the order Tuesday stating that while it was a time of year when faith is generally celebrated, the current crisis meant services had to be approached differently.
The decision was made to enforce the restriction after three religious gatherings were identified as the source of cluster outbreaks.
She said that ‘this time of year is one defined by renewal celebration and community for the people of all faith. The disruptions created by this global health crisis has forced us all to approach it differently, regardless of our religious beliefs’.
Lee Norman, the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, identified three church-related clusters known to the department: one involving a ministers conference, one in Sedgewick County and a third for which no details were offered.
According to Matthew Vainer, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, the diocese still plans to stream its Easter services online after suspending in-person masses at all of its parishes.
Vice President Mike Pence was questioned about the controversy in Kansas during Wednesday’s White House press briefing.
Pence said that all Americans should continue to avoid gatherings of more than ten people.
‘And that’s on the advice of all of our best scientific experts, as a way that we can, we can slow the spread,’ Pence said.
‘But as we’ve made clear to every governor, we defer to our governors and what they believe is the best and appropriate practice in their states, and we’ll support those local decisions.’