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The Federal Court House in Kansas City.

Jackson County eases restrictions for churches, other places of worship

Resuming a somewhat normal life in Jackson County just got a bit easier. The county announced on Wednesday that is it changing its reopening policies for churches and fitness centers to be more consistent with other local governments though they have not yet released the changes.

As reported in the Metro Voice on May 7, Abundant Life Church filed a lawsuit against Jackson County. That lawsuit followed the county’s announcement on May 6 that churches and all places of worship would be limited to 10 attendees. Churches and other places of worship will be able to allow 25 percent of occupancy per fire codes for buildings under 10,000 square feet and 10 percent of occupancy for buildings over 10,000 square feet. The county stated “details can be found in the guidance document, “advising that revised document will be released today online.

Gyms and Fitness Centers Can Reopen May 18

Gyms and fitness centers will be allowed to open May 18 with an occupancy limit. The previous executive order had required them to remain closed. Owners, members and patrons of gyms and fitness centers have urged county officials to allow those facilities to reopen. One member of Genesis Health Clubs — with facilities throughout the metro, including Kansas City and Jackson County — anonymously told the Metro Voice the sentiments of many.

READ: Church files suit against county over unevenly applied restrictions

“Our health clubs are cleaned daily,” he said. “Paper towels and disinfecting spray are always available in the workout floors areas. Spacing between workout equipment already accommodates 6-foot social distancing.”

“Viruses can’t survive in the temperatures of the saunas and steam room or in the chlorinated pools and whirlpool,” he added. “Our health clubs and gyms, if cleaned properly, and sanitized, are some of the safest places to be. They also help us stay healthier and increase our immunity against the virus. I can’t wait to get back.”

Jackson County Officials Receive Overwhelming Feedback

Jackson’s County officials have received an overwhelming amount of feedback from constituents. Theresa Galvin, chair of the Jackson County Legislature, told Jeff Fox of The Examiner for a May 12 story, “we need to find some way to help these people open up. Telling them that hopefully in three or four weeks they might be included in phase two is just not something that’s working for the community.”

Galvin, who represents Jackson County’s 6th District, including Lee’s Summit, Greenwood, Lake Lotawana and Lone Jack, told The Examiner, “If you can have a bar open, we should be able to find a way to keep churches open, gymnasiums, dance studios…”

Jeanie Lauer, who represents the 5th District in the Jackson County Legislature, including Blue Springs, Grain Valley, Oak Grove and Lake Tapawingo, has been urging county officials to allow gyms and health clubs to reopen. She told Fox that “gyms are making the argument” that they “already have compliance issues in place, protocols for sanitation and distancing and so the gym owners are already compliant with that. They are wanting to be open just like everyone else.”

The equal treatment that Galvin called for toward churches and other places of worship. compared to businesses that were already allowed to reopen on May 11, is echoed in the lawsuit filed by Abundant Life Church against Jackson County.

Abundant Life Adds Motions for TRO in Lawsuit Against Jackson County

The “pre-enforcement civil rights lawsuit challenges unconstitutional and unlawful discrimination against religious institutions and persons in order and plans issued by Jackson County, Missouri; the Jackson County Health Department, and their leaders.”

In new video, pastor responds to update on lawsuit:

In announcing the lawsuit to Abundant Life Church in a video posted on Facebook on May 7, lead pastor, Phil Hopper, explained that the church wanted equal, non-discriminatory treatment like other places open to the public. He said they had planned to resume Sunday services on May 17.

Hopper told his congregants Abundant Life was planning to follow CDC guidelines for sanitation and social distancing. Before Jackson County guidelines were issued on May 6, Abundant Life had planned to follow the same occupancy limits the City of Kansas City announced.

Kansas City Missouri’s plan allows churches and places of worship to accommodate up to 10 percent of building occupancy. Hopper said that would allow up to 474 people per service in their Lee’s Summit campus auditorium.

abundant life jackson county

Phil Hopper, pastor of Abundant Life Church in Lee’s Summit, Mo. Photo: FB screenshot.

After the county issued the 10-person limit for places of worship on May 6, Jon Whitehead, the church attorney for Abundant Life, filed the lawsuit the next day on behalf of the church.

Hopper said there was concern the county might not ease its restrictions on religious institutions or might not act until May 18. Other sources to the Metro Voice had also been confirming that anticipated, but delayed, timeline.

In addition to Abundant Life, many faith communities in Jackson County had planned to resume limited gatherings the day before on May 17. Jackson County Administrator, Troy Schulte, told The Examiner’ that the county was planning to allow churches to use the 10 percent of their occupancy, but told Fox “some changes were to be announced Monday.”

With concern for their church and other places of worship who had planned to gather on May 17, Abundant Life asked Whitehead to file a Motion for Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) “to expedite the hearing on this matter on an emergency basis.” Whitehead told the Metro Voice that Abundant Life wanted to “make sure churches will be treated fairly at this weekend’s services.” Along with the TRO, he filed a document in support of Abundant Life’s “Motion for Expedited Hearing and Temporary Restraining Order.”

That document included citation of numerous federal and state laws and the Constitution of the United States. It also contained references to 20 examples of case law. The Motion for TRO, states “Defendants have adopted a plan that discriminates against religious gatherings, in favor of commercial gatherings.”

If granted, the TRO would prevent Jackson County from enforcing or threatening to enforce the County’s plan. Whitehead’s motion on behalf of Abundant Life would have enjoined the “Defendants from imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise , unequal terms, discrimination, or unreasonable limitations on the religious exercise of the Plaintiff, its employees, and its members or guest.”

Whitehead’s motion for Abundant Life also argued that the County’s previous 10-person limit violated the free exercise and free speech clauses of the US Constitution, as well as religious freedom provisions of the Constitution of the State of Missouri.

Jackson County Sends Church a Cease-and-Desist for Drive-In Services

One pastor of a church in Jackson County shared with the Metro Voice repeated cease-and-desist letters he received from the Jackson County Health Department. That church was holding drive-in services in its church parking lot. The pastor preached from a small platform by the parking lot and congregants remained in their vehicles to follow strict social distancing guidelines.

One such cease-and-desist letter stated, “Further complaints about your business will result in the county sheriff or appropriate city law enforcement agency being notified about your non-compliance…violations or failure to comply with this Order is a class A misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both including the possible suspension of your business license.”

[The Metro Voice had considered identifying that church and posting a PDF of the redacted letter, but we have decided against that to protect the church, its leaders and congregants from possible retaliation from the county and others in the community.]

Abundant Life Plans to Drop Motion for Temporary Restraining Order

When reached last night by the Metro Voice for comment in response to Jackson County’s announcement giving churches and other places of worship the same occupancy allowances as businesses, Hopper said, “We will not be going to court Friday morning.” He explained that the County’s actions last night made the motion for TRO unnecessary.

Hopper has emphasized his desire to work with the county and support government at all levels, even after announcing the lawsuit. The following are excerpts of his 6-minute video message to Abundant Life Church on May 7:

‘We don’t want to sue our own government if we don’t have to’

“I said from the beginning, we have a responsibility as Christians to follow our governing authorities,” he said. “We do not want to be defiant or oppositional to human government. We as the church have a responsibility to work with them and not against them. As long as our government does not give us an unbiblical or sinful mandate, we are to obey them, but at whatever point they give us an unbiblical or sinful mandate, we are to disobey them and obey God. We don’t want to sue our own government if we don’t have to, adding that there is a time, as Peter taught in Acts 5:29, potentially for civil disobedience. We’re not going to do that; we’re going to follow the legal channels and we’re going seek to work with them.”

A win for every church and house of worship of every faith in Jackson County

Throughout the last week, Hopper has repeatedly said that Abundant Life’s legal actions were for the benefit of all churches and places of worship.

“It’s a win for every church and house of worship of every faith throughout Jackson County. This not only benefits Catholics, Protestants, and evangelicals, but also people of other faith communities, such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus and persons of other faiths. Religious liberty is a pillar of our society for all people of all faiths and should be protected from government encroachment,” he said.

Jackson County announced that the new executive order affecting places of worship will be in effect for at least 14 days.

For now, the lawsuit against Jackson County stands.

“Right now, we have not yet dropped the TRO hearing, until the County provides us with an order and final documents that allows opening.  They’ve told us to expect changes today, but we’ve not seen the plan or order,” stated Whitehead.

–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice

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