On Saturday night, a federal judge in Kansas issued a misguided ruling in a case brought by two churches that want to hold in-person services despite an order from Gov. Laura Kelly limiting gatherings to 10 people or less to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Aided by the Religious Right legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom, pastors at the two churches – First Baptist Church in Dodge City and Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City – argued that the order somehow singled out religious communities, even though it applies to comparable nonreligious gatherings.
U.S. District Judge John Broomes bought the argument and issued a temporary order blocking enforcement of Kelly’s order as it applies to these two churches. He also issued a lengthy list of social distancing rules that the churches must abide by, such as keeping people six feet apart, not using collection plates, having hand sanitizer available and ventilating the churches. It was unclear, however, who if anyone would actually enforce these strictures.
The ruling is unfortunate, but it’s important to realize that it’s an outlier. Americans United’s Legal Department has been monitoring these cases nationwide. There have been at least 10 rulings so far in state and federal courts, and the ruling by Broomes is the only one to cast doubt on a state do-not-gather order. (An earlier ruling by a federal judge in Kentucky struck down a citywide order in Louisville in a complicated case involving a drive-in church.) Courts have upheld public health orders that include restrictions on religious gatherings in California, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Texas, and Virginia.
Broomes’s decision was made at a preliminary stage, and the case will continue. As Kelly noted, “There is still a long way to go in this case. And we will continue to be proactive and err on the side of caution where Kansans’ health and safety is at stake.”
Kelly is doing the right thing. Media reports have indicated that an estimated 25 percent of Kansas’s COVID-19 cases can be traced to religious gatherings. Government officials have the right to protect people as long as they treat religious and secular gatherings equally.
Americans United has filed friend-of-the-court briefs in five of these cases and will continue doing that. Most recently, on Sunday evening, our attorneys filed a brief in another case from Kentucky concerning a Baptist church that is trying to overturn Gov. Andy Beshear’s order banning large gatherings.
“As we’ve already seen in Kentucky and across the country, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between religious and secular gatherings – it spreads easily at both, putting the health of entire communities at risk,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United.
Americans United will continue to protect church-state separation in court. We’re confident that most judges, unlike Broomes in Kansas, will hand down rulings that recognize the importance of protecting public health while safeguarding constitutional values.