Federal Court Strikes Down Kansas Governor’s Orders Banning Religious Gatherings During Coronavirus Pandemic

'Churches and religious activities appear to have been singled out among essential functions for stricter treatment,' a judge wrote.

empty pews in a church
miltritter / Pixabay

'Churches and religious activities appear to have been singled out among essential functions for stricter treatment,' a judge wrote.

A federal judge has blocked Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s social distancing orders that effectively prohibit religious gatherings, NBC News reports.

Kansas, like so many other states, has put into place social distancing orders that, among other things, ban gatherings of 10 or more people in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Many of Kansas’ churches took a similar approach to other churches across the country during the pandemic, broadcasting services online or holding worship services in the churches’ parking lots.

However, the orders banning religious gatherings did not sit well with Kansas’ Republican-controlled legislature, nor with some of the Sunflower State’s faithful.

Pastor Stephen Ormond of First Baptist Church in Dodge City and Pastor Aaron Harris of Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City filed a lawsuit alleging that the orders violated their First Amendment right to practice their religion. Further, both men argued that since their religion requires “corporate” prayer, holding church online was and is impossible.

The lawsuit also alleges that the order could have imposed measures intended to stop the spread of the coronavirus that didn’t involve completely shutting down places of worship, such as requiring a 6-foot distance between congregants, and providing hand sanitizer and face masks. The lawsuit went on to argue that in deeming some Kansas businesses “essential” and others “non-essential,” Kelly’s orders were effectively “hostile” to places of worship.

Portrait of Kansas Governor Laura Kelly
  Chris Mullins / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

U.S. District Judge John Broomes in Wichita agreed and issued a ruling that blocks Kelly’s order banning religious gatherings.

Broomes noted in his ruling that, inasmuch as Kelly’s orders deem some Kansas businesses “essential” and others “non-essential,” the rules are arbitrary.

“The disparity has been imposed without any apparent explanation for the differing treatment of religious gatherings,” Broomes said.

The ruling does, however, leave some restrictions in place inside houses of worship. Worshippers must still sit 6 feet apart, and the passing of collection plates is forbidden because it would require multiple people touching the same object.

Kelly, for her part, insisted that her social distancing orders were never intended to target religion.

“That executive order had absolutely nothing to do with religious freedom. It had everything to do with protecting the health and safety of Kansans,” she told reporters Friday.

Outside of Kansas, some religious leaders have found themselves in front of judges, facing criminal charges for holding worship services despite social distancing orders in their jurisdictions. For example, as previously reported by The Inquisitr, Louisiana Pastor Tony Spell was arrested for continuing to hold worship services at Life Tabernacle Church.