The Washington Post reports:
LAWRENCE, Kan. — The Kansas Supreme Court on Saturday struck down a Republican-led effort to allow the continuation of in-person church services across the state despite the governor’s ban on such gatherings to prevent the spread of coronavirus — what has been called the “War over Easter” here — as the virus-related death toll continued to rise.
Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, recently expanded a state stay-at-home order to limit church events to 10 people after state public health officials traced coronavirus outbreaks, and three deaths, to four religious gatherings. Kansas has recorded 1,268 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 55 deaths related to the virus, according to the state’s Department of Health and Environment.
Republican lawmakers on the state’s legislative council revoked Kelly’s order on Wednesday — effectively allowing churches to hold regular services on Easter — saying that the order infringed on religious liberty. Kelly then took the matter to court, calling the Republican action “shockingly irresponsible.”
The court ruled Saturday night that a small Republican-led legislative council that rescinded Kelly’s order did not have the authority to do so. They had heard arguments Saturday in a historic online session, during which lawyers argued their points before the judges via Zoom videoconferencing.
The pitched legal battle in the conservative state unfolded during a tense Holy Week as some churches across the country went forward with in-person Easter week services even as public-health officials warned that religious events could promote the spread of the virus and Covid-19, the disease it causes. The virus has claimed more than 20,000 lives in the United States — more than any other country’s confirmed total — and more than 500,000 infections have been confirmed nationwide. Total confirmed infections worldwide topped 1.7 million Saturday, with more than 107,000 deaths.
Several governors — including Florida’s Ron DeSantis (R) — have classified religious services as “essential business” in their states and have allowed such gatherings to continue despite statewide stay-at-home orders.
But national religious organizations including the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jewish and Muslim groups have suspended live worship.
In Kansas, Kelly said that most of the faith leaders she consulted before issuing the order already had done that, with many churches using live streams, so that congregants can stay at home, or moving services to drive-ins at local fairgrounds.
One Catholic church in the Kansas City area positioned photos of its families in their regular pews in the empty sanctuary.
As the coronavirus pandemic worsened in the United States in March, Kelly moved early to contain the spread in the state of nearly 3 million, ordering the closure of schools on March 17 and issuing a statewide “stay home” order on March 28.
On Tuesday, she expanded the order to limit religious services and funerals, saying that 25 percent of the state’s coronavirus outbreaks have been tied to religious gatherings and that the risk of a spike in cases tied to churches during Holy Week was “especially dangerous.”
Rural states have been slower to enact restrictions than harder-hit urban areas, with leaders alleging that stricter measures are an overreaction in wide-open spaces with far fewer cases. Five states — Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Arkansas — have not issued statewide stay-at-home orders.