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TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court late Saturday re-instated Gov. Laura Kelly's ban on large church crowds by determining a Republican-led panel doesn't have the power to overrule an executive order.
Instead, justices focused on the language of a hastily drafted resolution passed by the Legislature shortly before adjourning in March.
The resolution granted the governor emergency powers for responding to COVID-19 through May 1 and allows the State Finance Council to extend the emergency by 30 days. If extended, the resolution gives the Legislative Coordinating Council authority to reverse any executive order issued by the governor.
Justices determined the LCC doesn’t currently have that authority, based on the timetable outlined in the resolution. They declined to consider, as the governor argued, whether the Legislature can delegate such authority to the LCC in the first place.
Their decision followed arguments held hours earlier, entirely by video conference for the first time in the court's history, and capped four days of high-stakes political posturing.
The governor moved to limit church crowds in response to outbreaks of the coronavirus that were connected to church events in Kansas. Across the state, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused 56 deaths and 1,337 infections.
The LCC, a panel of five Republican and two Democratic legislative leaders, on Wednesday overturned the governor’s order after Republicans objected to the possibility that someone could be arrested or fined for going to church. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, distributed a memo telling law enforcement to ignore the governor’s directive.
Kelly on Thursday filed a petition with the high court challenging the LCC’s action.
“The plain language requires certain conditions — the State Finance Council must have acted upon the governor's request for an extension of the emergency declaration — before the LCC can act on behalf of the Legislature,” the court wrote in its opinion.
In a joint statement, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, and Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, said the governor’s decision to go to court has created uncertainty during a time of crisis.
“The question was never whether people should gather in church during these times,” the House Republicans said. “The answer to that is clearly no. The question was whether people should be arrested and jailed for going to church. The governor believed they should be. We think that goes too far.”
The governor hasn’t indicated how she would like the order to be enforced. Violating the order would be a low-level misdemeanor.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said other governors have kept places of worship open while encouraging people to stay home.
"Kelly’s orders display her misplaced priorities when she makes it an arrestable offense to attend church while prisoners are rioting, businesses are permanently closing, and state agencies are fumbling,“ Wagle said.
Kelly said her top priority is the safety and well-being of Kansans.
“Today’s ruling does not change my commitment to maintaining open lines of communication and collaboration with the Legislature,” Kelly said. “The only way to get through this is by working with, not against, each other in a bipartisan fashion.”
Pastor Aaron Harris, of Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City, said the high court’s decision doesn’t “validate the governor’s order,” even though it carries the full force of law.
"The legislative council may not have had legal authority to revoke it, but it is still unconstitutional,“ Harris said. ”We’ll be having services tomorrow. I hope and pray that our local LE will respect the Constitution.“
Junction City police chief John Lamb said church members acted responsibly during the service, which was monitored by an officer to ensure there were fewer than 10 participants and that they maintained 6 feet of separation.