Gov. Kelly, churches reach settlement in lawsuit over religious gathering limits

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly speaks at a news conference to give updates on the COVID-19 outbreak Thursday, April 9, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal via AP]

Story updated at 12:06 p.m. Sunday

BELLE PLAINE — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said she has reached a deal that could resolve a lawsuit brought by two churches challenging her order banning religious gatherings of more than 10 people to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Under the deal, the two churches and the Democratic governor agreed to the extension of a temporary restraining order that allows the churches to disregard the 10-person limit. The court’s initial order let the two churches to gather in-person until May 2 as long as they complied with social-distancing measures, including keeping worshippers a safe distance from each other. The new proposal would extend that court order to May 16.

The agreement, which a judge must still approve, essentially allows the churches to continue in-person services while the governor finalizes plans for her less restrictive statewide reopening orders that would take effect on May 4.

“While I am confident that we have the law on our side, the agreement with these two churches will allow us to move forward and focus our efforts on mitigating the spread of the disease and working to restart the economy,” the governor said in a news release late Saturday.

The churches and their pastors filed a federal lawsuit earlier this month against Kelly, arguing that the directive violates their religious and free-speech rights, as well as their right to assembly.

The First Baptist Church in Dodge City and its pastor, Stephen Ormond, and Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City and its pastor, Aaron Harris, filed the federal lawsuit because they said Kelly’s order violated their religious and free-speech rights, as well as their right to assemble.

Attorneys for Kelly told a federal judge during a court hearing Thursday that Kansas had traced five coronavirus clusters that had resulted in seven deaths to church gatherings. The governor noted that since the lawsuit was filed Ford County, where one of the churches is located, has seen a spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases, from 51 to 419.

As of Saturday, Kansas health officials reported 117 people statewide had died, 474 people had been hospitalized and 3,056 confirmed COVID-19 cases had been reported. The actual number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest that people can be infected without feeling sick.

A religious freedom advocacy group, Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a news release that it reserved the right to continue litigating the matter if the governor does not follow through with “appropriately amending her mass gathering ban.”

“This is a victory for the churches whose First Amendment freedoms the governor has repeatedly disrespected throughout this ongoing litigation,” said the group’s attorney, Ryan Tucker.

A court filing on Saturday briefly outlined the governor’s plans for new reopening restrictions that would take effect May 4. Lawyers for Kelly told the court that those restrictions would not prohibit gatherings in which individuals maintain a six-foot distance and follow other safety procedures.


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