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A federal judge in Kansas ruled in favor of two Baptist churches challenging a ban on religious gatherings over 10 people, issuing a temporary restraining order on Saturday that found Gov. Laura Kelly’s restrictions for public assemblies during the coronavirus pandemic had likely violated the churchgoers’ constitutional rights to religious exercise.
US District Court Judge John W. Broomes, appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017, wrote in a four-page order that the state cannot enforce its April 7 stay-at-home order “prohibiting religious gatherings involving more than ten attendees,” as long as the two churches use social distancing measures.
Filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group, the case is one of several challenges by religious organizations in the past couple weeks that attempt to block social distancing and shelter-in-place orders. The group has contended the rules can unfairly punish people of faith.
In an effort to support the group’s efforts, the Trump administration on Tuesday filed in court in Mississippi to help challenge a ban on drive-in church services.
In Kansas, the First Baptist Church of Dodge City and Calvary Baptist Church of Junction City had sued on Thursday to challenge the governor’s April 7 executive order that largely banned public assemblies over 10 people. That state’s ban didn’t provide an exemption for religious groups, even though it explicitly allowed bars and restaurants to stay open if they take social distancing measures. Shopping malls and libraries were also allowed to remain open.
In blocking the policy while the case proceeds, Broomes said the churches were likely to prevail to their challenge because the governor’s social distancing policy was overly broad and treated the churches differently than secular activity.
Broomes wrote: “Plaintiffs are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the form of denial of their constitutional right to the free exercise of their religion, arising from state-imposed restrictions on religious exercises that are not narrowly tailored to further the compelling governmental interest in halting the spread of COVID- 19, and which are more severe than restrictions on some comparable non-religious activities.”
According to the decision, the churches must abide by a set of social distancing measures proposed in their lawsuit, including keeping crowds under 50 people, avoiding physical contact, and deep-cleaning the churches before gatherings. The ruling will remain until May 2, Broomes said, “unless extended by the court for good cause.”