GIRARD — With Easter approaching, how churches are dealing with the coronavirus crisis is on many people’s minds, including government officials at both the local and state level.
The topic came up at the Tuesday meeting of the Crawford County Commission, where Commissioner Jeremy Johnson noted that three coronavirus clusters in Kansas have been linked to church gatherings.
“Especially coming up on Easter, that’s a big concern,” Johnson said.
County Health Officer Rebecca Adamson also addressed the issue — as it stood on Tuesday morning, at least.
“Churches are exempt from the governor’s order but pretty much most of them that I’ve talked to — I’ve talked to quite a few because I have a lot of questions — they’re not having services, they’ve gone to online,” Adamson said.
Johnson and Commissioner Tom Moody both said they had been hearing the same thing from church groups they’d talked to.
“Some are having people like go in their cars in the parking lot and listen on the radio, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Adamson said. “They’re not getting out of their cars, and they are exempt, so they're not in the order. But they’re not exposing themselves to anybody either, they’re staying in their vehicles.”
The same day of the county commission meeting, however, Gov. Laura Kelly issued yet another executive order removing the exemption from the ban on “mass gatherings” of more than 10 people for churches and religious groups.
“As Holy Week gets underway – and with Kansas rapidly approaching its projected ‘peak’ infection rate in the coming weeks – the risk for a spike in COVID-19 cases through church gatherings is especially dangerous,” Kelly said in a press release, adding that issuing the order was a difficult decision to make. It was also one which was quickly challenged.
“The governor’s new executive order restricting in-person religious gatherings as a COVID-19 countermeasure is sound public-health advice that Kansans should follow, but the order likely violates state constitutional and statutory protections for religious freedom and must not be enforced by arrest, prosecution, fines or imprisonment for worshiping,” according to a Wednesday press release from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office, paraphrasing a memo Schmidt wrote to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors statewide.
Later Wednesday, a Republican-controlled panel of state legislative leaders voted to overturn Kelly’s order, which Kelly called a “shamefully political attack” that undermined her administration’s COVID-19 containment efforts.
Kelly reportedly described Schmidt’s memo as “unusual,” “unwarranted” and “nonsensical,” and that while her order carries the full force of law, she said, Schmidt’s memo “has no legal authority whatsoever.”
She also criticized Republican legislative leaders. “Kansans are dying every day at the hand of this pandemic, and there is no room or excuse for these petty political distractions,” Kelly said.
Schmidt responded in a second press release Wednesday, saying he disagreed with her characterization of his memo as a “distraction.”
“My point of view should not have been surprising to the governor because my office repeatedly advised against issuing the overreaching executive order regulating churches and notified her I would express my concerns publicly if she proceeded,” Schmidt said in the release. “She did, and so did I.”
Despite the state-level debate over the politics and legality of what can be required of churches, at the local level, at least as of Tuesday, area religious groups and health officials seemed to be on the same page.
“The churches have been good; they’ve been calling and asking questions, I’ve gotten emails,” Adamson said, adding that they were taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously.
“I mean I’ve gotten lots of calls,” she said. “They’re really trying hard not to have anybody in the building, you know, they don’t want people to come close to one another.”