Kansas' high court weighs virus limits on religious services

Posted at 2:46 PM, Apr 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-11 14:46:00-04

BELLE PLAINE, Kan. (AP) -- An attorney for Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly told the state Supreme Court on Saturday that a Republican-dominated legislative panel exceeded its authority when it overturned the Democratic governor's executive order banning religious and funeral services of more than 10 people during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers countered that the language in a resolution they contend gave the panel that authority was a compromise reached with Kelly and was intended as a check on her power at a time when the full Legislature couldn't meet because of virus concerns.

The hearing, which was the court's first conducted completely via video conferencing, came one day before Easter, which is typically the busiest day on the Christian calendar in terms of church attendance.

"In this time of crisis, the question before the court is whether a seven-member legislative committee has the power to overrule the governor. The answer is no," said Clay Britton, chief counsel for the governor.

During an emergency, the governor can only be overruled by the Legislature as a whole acting on a resolution voted on by all 165 of its members, he argued.

Attorneys for the lawmakers, though, said the court should consider that the resolution that gave the panel its authority was a compromise meant to give legislative oversight at a time when the full Legislature couldn't meet.

"You will recall this was a time everybody was trying to skedaddle as fast as they could from the Statehouse because of the pandemic concerns," said attorney Brad Schlozman.

The justices said they would confer right after the arguments were presented and would try to reach a decision quickly.

Both sides agree that worshipers should avoid gathering in large groups to avoid the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Many churches have been conducting services online for weeks, and none have publicly announced plans to reopen their doors to worshippers.

The legal issue at stake concerns how far the Legislature can go in delegating it's power to another group, in this case, the Legislative Coordinating Council, which is made up of the top four House leaders and top three Senate leaders. Five of the seven members are Republicans.

Lawmakers gave the council the right to review Kelly's executive orders and to overturn many of them within days. Conservative Republicans were upset with an order from Kelly to close K-12 schools for the rest of the spring semester and wanted to block her from using sweeping gubernatorial powers granted to deal with short-term disasters.

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state grew Saturday by 102, to 1,268. Kansas also reported five more deaths, bringing the total to 55.

The state has identified four outbreaks stemming from religious gatherings.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.