Kansas's Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, is one of several governors to ban gatherings of people, including church services, in the era of COVID-19. Republicans in the state sued to overrule the order and they found a state judge willing to go along. Gov. Kelly appealed to the state Supreme Court, and yesterday -- in a bizarre tableau of a social distance internet meeting -- the court sided unanimously with Gov. Kelly, but the fight is far from over.
The unanimous decision means Kelly’s order limiting religious gatherings to no more than 10 individuals will be in effect for Easter Sunday services. The court didn’t consider whether Kelly’s order infringes on religious freedom.
Instead, justices focused on the language of a hastily drafted resolution passed by the Legislature shortly before adjourning in March.
The resolution granted the governor emergency powers for responding to COVID-19 through May 1 and allows the State Finance Council to extend the emergency by 30 days. If extended, the resolution gives the Legislative Coordinating Council authority to reverse any executive order issued by the governor.
Justices determined the LCC doesn’t currently have that authority, based on the timetable outlined in the resolution. They declined to consider, as the governor argued, whether the Legislature can delegate such authority to the LCC in the first place.
Their decision, announced late Saturday, followed arguments held hours earlier, entirely by video conference for the first time in the court’s history, and capped four days of high-stakes political posturing.
The governor moved to limit church crowds in response to outbreaks of the coronavirus that were connected to church events in Kansas. Across the state, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused 55 deaths and 1,268 infections.
State Republicans vow to fight the ruling somehow, but Gov. Kelly is correct here.
Kelly said her top priority is the safety and well-being of Kansans.
“Today’s ruling does not change my commitment to maintaining open lines of communication and collaboration with the Legislature,” Kelly said. “The only way to get through this is by working with, not against, each other in a bipartisan fashion.”
But as I said, as with churches today all over the country, many people will still attend Easter Sunday services anyway. And some will get sick. A few will be hospitalized, and die.
Pastor Aaron Harris, of Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City, said the high court’s decision doesn’t “validate the governor’s order,” which carries the full force of law.
“The legislative council may not have had legal authority to revoke it, but it is still unconstitutional,” Harris said. “We’ll be having services tomorrow. I hope and pray that our local LE will respect the constitution.”
Again, we remain firmly in uncharted territory here. Social distancing is only going to be feasible as long as people can meet basic needs like food, shelter, and water. If that starts breaking down, then civil disobedience will turn uncivil, very very quickly.
History says this all ends extremely badly.