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On Wednesday, Kansas experienced its greatest increase in coronavirus cases of any day yet, as 146 new patients were confirmed to have the virus. Though it remains relatively unharmed by the pandemic — as of Wednesday, its 1,046 cases ranked 37th of all states — three of Kansas’s greatest outbreaks have involved religious gatherings, leading to Governor Laura Kelly’s executive order on Tuesday limiting the size of religious congregations and funerals ahead of Easter. Because a full quarter of the state’s cases can be traced back to religious services, the Democratic governor temporarily restricted all religious gatherings to ten people — not including preachers, liturgists, and musical performers.
But on Wednesday, the day the order was to be implemented, state Republicans prioritized freedom of religion over public health. First, Republican attorney general Derek Schmidt issued a memo discouraging law enforcement agencies from enforcing the requirements. Kelly described the AG’s action as “unusual” and “nonsensical, as an executive order carries the force of the law,” while the AG’s recommendation “has no legal authority whatsoever.” Kelly then criticized Schmidt for undermining her in a time of crisis, claiming that his message detracts “our efforts away from saving Kansans’ lives and mitigating the threat of this deadly virus all because we’re being forced to clear up confusion and respond to a shamefully political attack.”
Shortly after Schmidt’s memo, Republican lawmakers overturned the executive order, claiming that it impedes on religious rights — even though many churches canceled Easter services voluntarily or intend to hold them online. “It appears to be out of line, extreme, and clearly in violation, a blatant violation, of our fundamental rights,” said Senate president Susan Wagle. According to the Topeka Capitol-Journal, the legislative coordinating council’s 5-2 vote to rescind the order “invited confusion about whether there is no longer a statewide ban on any kind of large public gathering.”
Independent of any religious holidays occurring this weekend, the move is alarming, considering the spread of the virus in the state, where confirmed cases more than doubled in the past week. And while governors in 43 other states have imposed similar restrictions on religious gatherings, GOP lawmakers’ decision in Kansas could cause outsize harm considering the potential size of Easter services being held on Sunday. Though President Trump ultimately decided not to have everything “opened up and just raring to go by Easter” due to the threat of increased exposure, Republicans in the Sunflower State appear ready to run that experiment for him.