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Kansas Supreme Court rules in favor of Gov. Laura Kelly lawsuit against LCC

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TOPEKA, 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.

In a joint statement Speaker Ron Ryckman, Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, and Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch said,

We want to thank Chief Justice Luckert and the Members of the Kansas Supreme Court for their prompt consideration of the issues raised in the Governor’s lawsuit, and we honor the Court’s decision.

The question was never whether people should gather in church during these times. 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 Court went a different direction in the Governor’s lawsuit and instead focused on the emergency disaster resolution itself. So, while the Governor can now move forward with the criminal provision she sought on churches, we’re more concerned about the bigger picture.

The Court’s decision causes the state’s emergency disaster declaration to expire on May 1, which could jeopardize federal disaster relief funding. While everyone is hopeful this pandemic subsides soon, the reality is a longer period of emergency disaster authority will likely be needed in order to protect Kansans and our state’s relief funding.

The Governor’s decision to go to court instead of compromise has created a new level of uncertainty that does nothing to help our state through this crisis. Working together is the only way we address that uncertainty, protect the health of our state, and save people’s lives.

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