Douglas County Sheriff’s Office will enforce governor’s orders, including ban on mass religious gatherings

photo by: Elvyn Jones/Journal-World File Photo

In this Journal-World photo from April 12, 2020, about 40 vehicles are parked in the rear parking lot of the Heritage Baptist Church, 1781 East 800 Road, as the congregation had in-person Easter services in defiance to Gov. Laura Kelly's executive order banning public gatherings of more than 10 people.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said Monday that the agency would now enforce Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order limiting public gatherings, including religious services, to no more than 10 people.

“If citizens do not voluntarily abide by the order we will either submit a criminal report to the District Attorney’s office or an arrest will be made for violating an emergency order from the Governor,” said Jenn Hethcoat, public information officer for the sheriff’s office, in an email to the Journal-World Monday.

County officials, including the sheriff’s office, have said that they are largely encouraging voluntary compliance with the executive orders issued to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease, COVID-19. That hasn’t changed, but local enforcement grew some teeth on Monday.

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Heritage Baptist Church defies governor’s order with Easter services

Heritage Baptist Church, 1781 East 800 Road, held in-person services on Sunday despite Kelly’s order, which had been upheld Saturday after an unprecedented Kansas Supreme Court hearing conducted entirely via video. At least one other Kansas church, in Junction City, also held in-person services on Sunday, the Associated Press reported.

Hethcoat said Sunday that the sheriff’s office did not enforce the order regarding a religious service because it had not yet been published in the Kansas Register. The order was published on Monday, though, and “There are now several statutes that fall under the purview of enforcing” it, Hethcoat said.

“If citizens are not following the rules and practices outlined in the Governor’s order, including social distancing, law enforcement will attempt to secure voluntary compliance,” according to a news release from Douglas County’s Unified Command. “If there is a danger to the public, or flagrant or repeated violations of the order, law enforcement is prepared to enforce the order.”

A violation of the executive order is a class A misdemeanor, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Unified Command, which includes leaders from Douglas County, the City of Lawrence, Lawrence Memorial Hospital and Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. Individuals who violate an executive order by the governor could face a fine of up to $2,500 and a year in jail.

“Violation of additional statutes and ordinances may be applicable to a specific situation, such as unlawful assembly, interference with a law enforcement action and various public nuisance laws,” according to the Unified Command news release.

Multiple media outlets, including the Journal-World, asked Kelly during her daily press briefing about enforcement and church services that were held over the weekend. Kelly said that “enforcement is up to the locals.”

“I am hoping that we don’t see any other clusters as a result of what occurred over the weekend,” Kelly said. “Time will tell.”

Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of KDHE, said Monday that among 23 outbreaks the state is monitoring, five were sourced from religious gatherings. He said one of those gatherings, held in Wyandotte County, had led to four deaths and 46 positive COVID-19 cases, which are distributed across nine counties.

Kelly’s original order barring large public gatherings had exempted religious services, but she changed that last week after such gatherings had been linked to three community-spread outbreaks, the Journal-World has reported.

The Journal-World asked Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health leaders last week who was responsible for enforcing Kelly’s stay-at-home order. State statutes passed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic indicated that local health officials were responsible for enforcing quarantine orders, with law enforcement agencies at their disposal should the local health officer request assistance.

The Douglas County health officer’s stay-at-home order had gone into effect March 24, about a week prior to Kelly’s statewide executive order that superseded it. Enforcement of the governor’s executive orders does fall to law enforcement, Kristi Zears, director of communications for KDHE, said via email Monday.

The county took a firmer stance on Monday than guidance from the state’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

In a memo on April 8, Schmidt wrote that “Because no Kansan should be threatened with fine or imprisonment, arrested, or prosecuted for performing or attending church or other religious services … law enforcement officers are advised to encourage cooperative compliance” and avoid criminal enforcement on religious facilities, services or activities.

In a news release accompanying the memo Friday, Schmidt said “the order likely violates state constitutional and statutory protections for religious freedom and must not be enforced by arrest, prosecution, fines or imprisonment for worshiping.” However, CJ Grover, a spokesperson for Schmidt’s office, pointed out via email Monday that Schmidt did not recommend the executive order be disregarded or left unenforced.

The Associated Press reported that in Kentucky, state police had taken down the license plates of churchgoers’ vehicles so that they could be ordered to self-quarantine for 14 days following a large gathering there.

In Kansas, each county’s local health officer has the authority to issue isolation and quarantine orders, as does Norman, Zears said Monday. She said KDHE had not issued any orders for violation of the ban on large public gatherings.

“In most cases, we would defer to the decisions of the local public health authority on what is in the best interest of their community,” Zears said.

Rev. Scott Hanks of Heritage Baptist Church did not immediately return a phone message from the Journal-World Monday afternoon, but on Sunday he told a reporter who had spotted about 40 cars in the church’s parking lot, “God wants us to have church.”

If Douglas County residents are concerned with violations of the order, they can contact the nonemergency number for the Douglas County Emergency Communications Center at 785-843-0250, according to the news release.

The county had 40 cases of COVID-19 as of Monday, according to the health department’s latest numbers.

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