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Kansas governor sues in dispute over in-person services

Kansas’ Democratic governor filed a lawsuit Thursday after a Republican-dominated legislative panel overturned her executive order banning religious and funeral services of more than 10 attendees during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Laura Kelly said “the last thing” she wants to do is get involved in a legal dispute, but the panel’s ruling Wednesday left her no choice.

“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,” Kelly said during a news conference.

Kelly is asking the Kansas Supreme Court to expedite the case and hopes to have a ruling by Sunday, which is Easter, the traditionally the most-attended church service of the year.

Kelly and GOP leaders generally agree that worshipers should stay home and watch livestreamed religious services during the pandemic, but they disagree on whether the state has the constitutional authority to order it.

In instituting the now-overturned order, Kelly said three religious gatherings had led to outbreaks of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The legal issue at stake concerns how far the Legislature can go in delegating it’s power to another group, in this case, the Legislative Coordinating Council, which is made up of the top four House leaders and top three Senate leaders. Five of the seven members are Republican.

Lawmakers gave the council the right to review Kelly’s executive orders and to overturn many of them within days. Conservative Republicans were upset with an order from Kelly to close K-12 schools for the rest of the spring semester and wanted to block her from using sweeping gubernatorial powers granted to deal with short-term disasters.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and candidate for the U.S. Senate seat Pat Roberts is vacating, said her own church canceled Mass on its own, “not a mandate by big brother infringing on the individual freedoms given to us by our Bill of Rights.”

It is unclear if any houses of worship planned to hold in-person services anytime soon.

At Central Community Church in Wichita, up to 7,000 people would typically be expected for Easter Sunday, Senior Pastor Bob Beckler said. This year, members of the evangelical church will be watching services on their phones, pads and computers.

“We’re trying to lead by example,” Beckler said. “I know if I opened the church doors there are people who would come because that’s their habit, and I don’t want to put them in that predicament at all, so we’re just doing it online and it’s working really good.”

The legislative leadership panel acted after Attorney General Derek Schmidt, also a Republican, said that although Kelly’s order was “sound public-health advice,” he was discouraging law enforcement agencies and prosecutors from attempting to enforce the requirements because he believed it violated the state constitution.

Kelly said Schmidt’s response only added to confusion.

The overturned order had rescinded an earlier order that barred most gatherings of more than 10 people, with exceptions for religious gatherings, raising questions about whether large gatherings were now legal. Schmidt later clarified that Kelly’s previous order remained in effect.

Top House Republicans said in a statement that they were “concerned and disappointed” with the lawsuit. They said they agree Kansans should stay home.

“But this is where we disagree: Kansans should not be arrested for practicing their faith,” said the statement from Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe; Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita; and Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa.

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state grew by 60 on Thursday, to 1,106. Kansas reported four more deaths, bringing the total to 42.

The Kansas Department of Labor reported that it received 50,345 unemployment insurance claims last week. That compares to 1,405 claims for the same week a year ago.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

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