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The Kansas Statehouse as seen in the window of a nearby church in Topeka. (PHOTO:Jim McLean / Kansas News Service)

Federal judge blocks Gov. Kelly’s limits on church gatherings

A federal court in Kansas issued a temporary restraining order Saturday against Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order limiting church gatherings to 10 people due to COVID-19.

This is the latest move in a saga that has caught national attention, coming a week after the Kansas  Supreme Court ruled in favor of Kelly.

The Kansas governor, a Democrat, had added churches and other religious facilities to her Stay Home Order five days before Easter. She then saw her order overturned by the Legislative Coordinating Council (LCC), a panel of state lawmakers.

However, the Kansas Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the order, which was the issue brought up in a lawsuit filed Thursday by two Kansas Baptist churches.

Judge John Broomes issued his decision Saturday:

“Plaintiffs have made a sufficient showing that a live controversy exists as to whether the Governor’s current restrictions on religious activity … violate Plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion. Defendant has not argued that mass gatherings at churches pose unique health risks that do not arise in mass gatherings at airports, offices, and production facilities. Yet the exemption for religious activities has been eliminated while it remains for a multitude of activities that appear comparable in terms of health risks.”

Kelly’s attorneys had claimed that churches weren’t being singled out, but Broomes didn’t agree.

“I don’t see how you can say that doesn’t target religion … when it is expressly aimed at religion,” Broomes said. “(You are) calling them out separately and that seems to be the issue here … You have picked and chosen who will get exceptions and what those exceptions will be.”

Kelly still defends her order in spite of the latest ruling.

“This is not about religion, she said. “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.”

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt had a different take on the ruling.

“Today’s judicial ruling is a much-needed reminder that the Constitution is not under a stay-home order and the Bill of Rights cannot be quarantined,” he said. “The Constitution protects our liberties especially during times of crisis, when history reveals governments too quick to sacrifice rights of the few to calm fears of the many.”

READ: Kansas Stay Home Order extended; Topeka attorney answers questions


Churches must still practice social distancing and other health guidelines, such as taking congregants’ temperatures and sanitizing buildings before gatherings.

Judge Broomes’ order is in effect until May 2. At the request of the governor’s attorneys, Broomes set up an in-person hearing for 9 a.m. Thursday, April 23, to hear arguments on whether or not churches should be able to hold in-person services.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) represented the two churches in this case: Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City and First Baptist Church in Dodge City. One had in-person services on Easter, with 21 persons attending in a sanctuary with a capacity of 300, while the other had drive-in services.

The ADF and First Liberty Institute also had success last week in other religious freedom cases in Greenville, Miss., where the Temple Baptist Church and King James Baptist Church sued in response to fines issued to congregants attending their drive-in services.

–Lee Hartman | Metro Voice