Kansas’ high court rules for governor on religious services

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Known as The Lighted Cross Church, Excelsior Lutheran Church near Wilson, Kan., is dark, Friday, April 10, 2020. The church is not holding their normal Good Friday service during the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

BELLE PLAINE, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court ruled Saturday that a Republican-dominated legislative panel exceeded its authority when it tried to overturn the Democratic governor’s executive order banning religious and funeral services of more than 10 people during the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision letting Gov. Laura Kelly’s order stand came after the justices heard oral arguments one day before Easter, which is typically the busiest day on the Christian calendar in terms of church attendance. The Saturday hearing was the court’s first conducted completely via video conferencing.

The court ruled that legislative action designed to give the legislative leadership panel the ability to overrule Kelly’s executive orders was flawed and didn’t legally accomplish that.

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.

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. The panel is 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.

“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.

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.

Lawmakers had intended to give 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.

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Check out more of the AP’s coronavirus coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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