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JUNCTION CITY — Calvary Baptist Church pastor Aaron Harris encouraged 20 worshipers Sunday to participate in a timely Bible study on fear and to closely examine their relationship with God.
"Bless us," Harris said in prayer to churchgoers strategically scattered throughout the sanctuary and to others tuning in via livestream. "Each person that's here, each person that's listening in any format today, the question is how will you respond to God's love."
Not once did the leader of this independent, fundamentalist Baptist church nestled in a residential neighborhood mention the decision Saturday by a U.S. District Court judge to issue a temporary order allowing the congregation to assemble amid the coronavirus pandemic in numbers exceeding Gov. Laura Kelly's directive to cap religious and other types of gatherings at a maximum of 10 people. The church is one of two plaintiffs responsible for the federal lawsuit naming only the governor as a defendant.
Harris' sermon focused on analysis of John 3:16 rather than constitutional ramifications of the governor's order wading into the hallowed ground of individual expression and religious liberty.
"You don't have to live discouraged," Harris said from the pulpit, with a plain wood cross centered above him. "You can be encouraged, knowing God loves you."
One-third of the in-church devotees wore face masks during the service, but everyone followed public health guidelines to keep their distance in the pews from people outside their immediate families. The unusual setup didn't impede ability of the church’s brothers and sisters to punctuate the sermon with an amen or contribute to singing of hymns.
After ushering worshipers out the door, absent the traditional handshake, Harris declined an interview request. Despite being one of two plaintiffs with First Baptist Church in Dodge City in the lawsuit designed to thwart Kelly's executive order, the pastor was content to deflect media scrutiny to attorneys articulating the First Amendment justification for a church exclusion to the state's plan to limit transmission of COVID-19.
The virus had contributed to the death of 92 Kansans and infected at least 1,849 others by the time Calvary Baptist's faithful exited the wood-and-stone church before noon. As of Saturday, coronavirus outbreaks in Kansas had been linked by public health officials to five church events leading to six fatalities and 80 infections.
Harris encouraged members of the church to pray for healing the nation's wounds. He asked them to humbly consider their path in life.
"As Christians," he said, "we should all examine ourselves and ensure that we are following these steps to find healing of our land. Let's be sure to pray for those especially hurting during this time. The Lord wants the church to be a beacon of hope and light to the world."
Harris said the modest church in Junction City planned to host an outdoor service Sunday evening and convene the faithful as scheduled on Wednesday night.
U.S. District Judge John Broomes in Wichita issued the temporary restraining order Saturday in support of the two Baptist churches challenging Kelly’s limit on the size of church gatherings. He said initial arguments presented to the court made it likely the plaintiff's attorneys would prevail with a claim the governor's bid to inhibit spread of coronavirus was unconstitutional.
The governor's directive was suspended as it related to the plaintiff churches in Junction City and Dodge City, pending further proceedings.
The federal judge said the executive order signed ahead of Easter Sunday by Kelly to shrink church events to no more than 10 individuals was crafted to "expressly restrict religious activity" while allowing large gatherings at airports, child care centers, hotels, food pantries and retail establishments.
"The court recognizes that the current pandemic presents an unprecedented health crisis in Kansas, and in this country," said Broomes, who was an oil-and-gas attorney before appointed in 2018 by President Donald Trump. "The governor has an immense and sobering responsibility to act quickly to protect the lives of Kansans from a deadly epidemic. The court would not issue any restraint, temporary or otherwise, if the evidence showed such action would substantially interfere with that responsibility."
An Arizona group, Alliance Defending Freedom, filed the federal lawsuit Thursday on behalf of the Kansas churches. The organization has gone to court in other states during the pandemic to push back against state or local government decisions viewed as contrary to constitutional principles.
"Singling out churches for special punishment while allowing others to have greater freedom is both illogical and unconstitutional," said Ryan Tucker, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom. "We’re pleased that the court halted the governor from subjecting our clients to that type of targeting and agreed that the churches are likely to prevail on their claim that doing so violates the First Amendment."
Kelly expanded her original executive order limiting mass gatherings to include churches and religious events on April 7, with the intent of discouraging elbow-to-elbow worship services on Easter Sunday. The Republican-led Legislative Coordinating Council, which conducts business in absence of the House and Senate, voted to overturn Kelly's executive order.
The governor sought an emergency ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court, which decided April 11 the LCC lacked jurisdiction to repeal the Democratic governor's executive order. The justices didn't, however, resolve more delicate constitutional questions about her order. The federal lawsuit followed.
Kelly, who has endured political backlash for closing school buildings and limiting business operations as infections and deaths mounted, said the federal judge in Kansas was the first to rule against a governor's order on big gatherings. She said eight orders in other states restricting church meetings had withstood legal challenge.
"This is not about religion," Kelly said. "This is about a public health crisis. This ruling was just a preliminary step. There is still a long way to go in this case, and we will continue to be proactive and err on the side of caution where Kansans’ health and safety is at stake."
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, said the governor should accept the federal court’s temporary order and end the legal battle. He had advised law enforcement against enforcing her mass-gathering order as it related to religious meetings.
He said the federal judge’s action was a "much-needed reminder that the Constitution is not under a stay-home order and the Bill of Rights cannot be quarantined."
Schmidt also said he personally was convinced churches, synagogues, temples and mosques should cancel all in-person services.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said the federal court order could put churchgoers at further risk of contractive COVID-19. He said while religious freedom was "of the utmost importance, preventing the loss of lives should be a priority."
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported Sunday that COVID-19 had contributed to the death of 92 Kansans, an increase of four from Saturday. Testing in the state had revealed 1,849 people had tested positive for the virus.