Kansas Governor Sues Lawmakers Who Revoked Limit on Church Gatherings

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly speaks during an April 17, 2019, news conference at the Statehouse in Topeka. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) — Kansas’ Democratic Governor Laura Kelly announced Thursday she is suing a state legislative committee that overturned an executive order banning religious services of more than 10 people.

“I will not stand by when lives are in jeopardy and I will not allow the rule of law or the Constitution to be trampled on during an emergency,” she said during a press conference Thursday.

Kelly issued the order on Tuesday after state health officials determined that three religious conferences were partly responsible for the spread of Covid-19 in Kansas, which has 1,106 confirmed cases and 42 deaths as of Thursday. The order was added to the governor’s original stay-at-home order announced on March 24.

On Wednesday, the Legislative Coordinating Council, made up of seven Senate and House leaders, voted to overrule her order, saying it violated the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion. The council, consisting of 5 Republicans and 2 Democrats, voted along party lines.

“The Governor should not use this crisis, or any other crisis, as a basis to restrict our constitutional rights,” said Republican Senate President Susan Wagle in a statement Wednesday. “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 Attorney Derek Schmidt, a Republican, also pushed back against the governor, releasing a statement to state law enforcement agencies telling them not to prosecute those who violate the religious gathering order.

“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,” he said.

Kelly said the decision to overturn the order was “shockingly irresponsible.”

“The last thing I want right now is a legal battle, but as I said yesterday, Kansas lives are on the line,” Kelly said. “I took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. What the [lawmakers] did yesterday in concert with the Kansas Attorney General weakened and confused our emergency response efforts, putting every Kansan at risk.”

In the 8-page lawsuit filed with the state Supreme Court, Kelly argues that the council lacks the authority to overturn the executive order and instead requires the vote of the full Legislature. She has asked the high court to expedite the matter.

In a statement on Thursday, House Republicans said they were “concerned and disappointed” with the governor’s lawsuit, adding that they agree people should stay home, but do not think the government has a right to criminalize religious gatherings.

“This is where we disagree: Kansans should not be arrested for practicing their faith,” said the statement from House Speaker Ron Ryckman; Speaker Pro Tempore Blaine Finch and Majority Leader Dan Hawkins.

It’s unclear if the Kansas Supreme Court will issue a ruling before Easter Sunday.

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