KEY POINTS

  • Kansas Supreme Court will decide if church an “essential service” 
  • Church is not an “essential service” in Virginia
  • Courts asked to settle state, religion and health questions

Governors in several states have deemed church an “essential service,” allowing Easter worship to proceed even as public health officials warn that large gatherings could be a major setback amid a pandemic that has killed more than 14,000 people in the United States.

Though Virginia and Kansas are not among those states, executive orders from the governors of both states barring large congregations have come under scrutiny. While a Republican-controlled legislative panel overturned the governor's decision in Kansas, a citizen in Kansas has challenged the ban in court.

Russell County Circuit Court Judge Michael Moore denied the appeal for a temporary injunction in a lawsuit that claimed executive orders from Gov. Ralph Northram limiting the size of a gathering infringed on his religious freedom. Larry Hughes filed the lawsuit Monday ahead of Easter, which is normally an occasion that draws thousands to churches to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This year it will be celebrated mainly online via church live streams.

“The equities do not weigh in [petitioner’s] favor based on this pandemic,” Moore said, according to a news release from Attorney General Mark Herring’s office. “And to say that this injunction to be granted would be in the public interest is not defensible. So the court is going to deny the request for temporary injunction.”The hearing was held via phone and closed to the media.

Herring said in a statement that he is pleased with the decision. “Science tells us that social distancing is the most important thing we can do to save lives and prevent the spread of [COVID-19], and that’s exactly what these orders are doing,” Herring said. “We are all having to sacrifice right now to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities safe and our win today maintains these crucial safety measures.”Northram’s executive orders 53 and 55 ban public and private gatherings of 10 or more people, specifically mentioning religious events both inside and outside. Hughes’ lawsuit claims that it’s unfair to effectively shut down religious gatherings but allow other businesses that have been deemed essential to stay open.

T. Shea Cook, Hughes’ lawyer, called Northam’s action a “dangerous precedent” after the hearing.“We’d hoped to be able to get some relief prior to the Easter weekend, but ultimately we knew it was going to be difficult,” Cook said.

“We’re talking about a fundamental right that — in a time of crisis — has been eroded.”Cook said the case will move forward, just not with the injunction before Easter that they had asked for.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) has issued an executive order that limited religious gatherings and funerals to 10 people amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday. A seven-person Legislative Coordinating Council revoked her EO on public gatherings at churches. "This is a purely political move, one that I find incredibly unfortunate,” she said.

Kelly petitioned to the Kansas Supreme Court asking the judges to reinstate the executive order. She argued Wednesday’s party-line vote revoking her order, by the seven-person Legislative Coordinating Council, was unconstitutional. The Kansas Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Saturday.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R) advised police not to enforce it, writing in a memo Wednesday that the state Constitution “forbid[s] the governor from criminalizing participation in worship gatherings by executive order."