A U.S. District Court of Kansas judge issued a temporary restraining order on Saturday against part of Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order that limited church gatherings to 10 or fewer people, a ruling that paves the way for in-person religious services without violating the law.
The ruling is the latest in a saga about religious freedom that caught national attention after Kelly signed an order banning the gatherings, which had already been in effect amid the coronavirus pandemic, but added “churches or other religious facilities” to the list five days before Easter. The addition sparked a board of the state’s top legislators overriding the order and then the Kansas Supreme Court striking down the override. The Kansas court never ruled on the constitutionality of the order, which is what was brought up in a lawsuit filed Thursday by a couple of pastors and their two churches.
Judge John Broomes heard arguments for about 75 minutes on Friday during a telemeeting. Broomes issued his decision Saturday.
The order requires the two churches to practice social distancing and continue health protocols the churches started before the limitation on gatherings. Broomes also added a list of 24 protocols the churches need to follow, including attendees checking body temperatures before attending and having a single point of entry and exit on opposite sides of the building.
Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Ryan Tucker said they are pleased with the outcome.
“In light of the court’s order, we hope the governor will act quickly to remedy the unconstitutional provision of her mass gathering ban and avoid the need for continued litigation,” Tucker said in a news release.
Kelly said the ruling is not the end.
“This is not about religion. This is about a public health crisis. This ruling was just a preliminary step. There is still a long way to go in this case, and we will continue to be proactive and err on the side of caution where Kansans’ health and safety is at stake,” Kelly said in a news release. “Courts across the country have recognized that during this pandemic emergency the law allows governments to prioritize proper public health and safety.”
Saturday’s ruling addressed a constitutionality issue, answering if churches were being singled out in Kelly’s order. The suit said Kelly’s order violated the first amendment and the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.
The suit was filed by Junction City pastor Aaron Harris of Calvary Baptist Church and Dodge City pastor Stephen Ormord of First Baptist Church. They are being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom. Kelly is the only defendant.
Attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom argued the order singled out religion while exempting “26 types of secular activities,” including bars, libraries and shopping malls, according to court filings.
“So under the current (order) … a large group of people are permitted to get together at an office complex and have unrestricted meetings discussing real estate and real estate issues,” an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom told Broomes. “But if a group of people wanted to get together in that same office building to have a Bible study or conduct a religious service, they would be prevented from doing so.”