A Republican-led panel of Kansas legislative leaders on Wednesday overturned an executive order by the state’s Democrat governor that called for attendance limits on church services and funerals amid the coronavirus pandemic.
GOP members of the state’s Legislative Coordinating Council, composed of House and Senate leaders, asserted that first-term Gov. Laura Kelly had overstepped her authority by issuing the order, so they blocked it in a 5-2 vote along party lines.
“It appears to be out of line, extreme and clearly in violation, a blatant violation, of our fundamental rights,” Senate president Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, told the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Kelly had announced Tuesday that church services and funerals would no longer be exempted from a state order limiting gatherings to 10 people, the newspaper reported.
In addition to the lawmakers’ vote, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt issued a memo Wednesday, advising police in Kansas not to enforce Kelly’s order, arguing that while the order contained what appeared to be sound public health advice it also seemed a violation of rights guaranteed under the state’s Constitution.
“Because no Kansan should be threatened with fine or imprisonment, arrested or prosecuted for performing or attending church or other religious services, law enforcement officers are advised to … avoid engaging in criminal enforcement of its limitations on religious facilities, services or activities,” Schmidt wrote in the memo, according to the Capital-Journal.
At an afternoon news conference, Kelly denounced the lawmakers’ action as “shockingly irresponsible” and said it would likely cost some Kansans their lives. She said her legal counsel would examine the possibility of a court challenge, the Wichita Eagle reported.
“There are real life consequences to the partisan games Republicans played today,” Kelly said, according to the Eagle.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly addresses reporters March 17, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (Associated Press)
Kelly also spoke out against Schmidt for issuing the memo to police.
“I was so deeply troubled to learn that our attorney general has decided to launch a bizarre, confusing and overtly political attack at such a moment of tragedy and that Republican legislative leaders have chosen to follow suit with a shockingly irresponsible decision that will put every Kansas life at risk,” Kelly said, according to the Capital-Journal.
Schmist responded to Kelly’s remarks in a statement.
“I am confident Kansans of faith can be trusted to follow … important advice without their government threatening criminal sanctions for disobedience,” he wrote.
“I am confident Kansans of faith can be trusted to follow … important advice without their government threatening criminal sanctions for disobedience.”
— Derek Schmidt, Kansas attorney general
The actions by the governor and lawmakers came as confirmed coronavirus cases in the state surpassed the 1,000 mark and deaths increased to 38, the Eagle reported.
At least three clusters of infections in the state have been traced to church gatherings and health officials fear Easter services this coming Sunday could cause even more infections, the Eagle reported.
Governors in 44 states have called for limits on church gatherings similar to what Kelly called for, according to the Capital-Journal.