In what Laura Kelly, the Governor of Kansas, calls a “shockingly irresponsible decision” that will endanger lives, a Republican-led panel overturned her executive order limiting the size of church gatherings during the pandemic.
Kelly, a Democrat, removed exemptions Tuesday for churches and funerals, subjecting them to 10-person limits. The next day, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt strongly discouraged law enforcement from policing Kelly’s order, and the state’s Legislative Coordinating Council voted 5-2 (along party lines) to overturn the portion of the order affecting churches.
Are Religious Rights at Stake?
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican, opposed Gov. Kelly’s action, saying it’s wrong to “use this crisis, or any other crisis, as a basis to restrict our constitutional rights.” Churches, Wagle adds, should follow health advice “with free will, not a mandate by big brother” because “this is still America.”
Other Republicans chided the order for singling out churches while permitting gatherings at malls, libraries, and airports. “Our families still want to experience the joy of celebrating Easter and still carry the heartache of burying our loved ones,” says Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch. “I trust our faith leaders to exercise good judgment, do what’s right, and keep people safe.” Before voting to overturn the order, Finch said, “I think we have a duty to look out for one another and not spread this virus.”
Randy Quinn, senior pastor at Wichita’s West Heights United Methodist Church, doesn’t think the government is trying to impinge on rights and says people who feel that way “are pushing the wrong issue at the wrong time.” During this pandemic, Quinn adds, safety comes first, and worship can be done with one’s family. “I don’t need a gathering of 1,000 people, or 100 people, or 25 people to be in a spirit of worship and connection with God,” he says.
Three COVID-19 outbreaks in Kansas have been traced to religious gatherings.
Staying at Home Is Prudent, Most Church Leaders Agree
As in other parts of America, most Kansas pastors are sticking with virtual worship as the pandemic peak approaches. Dan Entwistle, senior executive director at Leawood’s Church of the Resurrection, says congregants have indicated they’re more connected than ever, thanks to technology. Attendance—or viewership—has doubled lately, he says, and leaders are making decisions based on both faith and science. “If we are expecting God to protect us despite the risks that we put in front of ourselves, then instead of us becoming agents of healing in the community,” Entwistle says, “we can actually become agents of harm by infecting others.”
New findings from Lifeway Research indicate that most U.S. Protestant pastors have hit pause on in-person worship to safeguard physical health. By March 15, 64 percent of pastors held in-person services, but by March 29, only seven percent did. Only three percent of pastors surveyed say they’ll have in-person gatherings no matter what.
Pastors also report adopting technology rapidly to try to keep people connected, which is a top concern. “The lack of [physical] presence pains many pastors and their congregations,” says Scott McConnell, Lifeway’s executive director, “but they are utilizing technology like never before to stay connected until they can meet again.” He adds, “Gathering for worship as a local church is a fundamental expression of the body of Christ, but so are valuing life and loving others.”