The Slatest

Kansas Republicans Undo Governor’s Coronavirus Order Prohibiting Large Religious Gatherings

A small church in a rural area
Kansas will allow church services to be held on Easter Sunday after the Legislature overturned the governor’s prohibition on large religious gatherings. Suzanne Cordeiro/Getty Images

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

The Kansas State Legislature voted Wednesday to override a provision of the governor’s stay-at-home order that limited religious gatherings to 10 people, even as the coronavirus cases in the state grew this week, jumping 40 percent to over 1,000 with 38 deaths. Kansas’ Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, issued an updated statewide order on March 28 that resembled similar orders in other states: no large gatherings, limited travel, and the curtailment of daily business to those deemed essential. Pretty standard stuff. But not to Republicans in the state, who also happen to control the Statehouse. Republican Senate leaders pushed to override the governor’s public health order and will now allow religious leaders to congregate freely on Easter Sunday.

Republicans in the state Legislature were able to undo the executive order using powers they granted themselves last month that allow the Legislature to override the governor in a wide range of circumstances. The power grab by Republicans in the state came after GOP lawmakers were outraged when the governor was early to close schools for the remainder of the academic year and restrict foreclosures and evictions in response to the pandemic. Republicans in the state Senate saw the handwriting on the wall and, when the emergency order needed to be renewed, set about crafting an amendment that outlined what the governor did not have the authority to do in response to the pandemic. And it wasn’t just religious gatherings they were worried about protecting. It was access to guns and booze.

The final wording of the resolution was more limited, but still prohibited regulating the arms trade in the state in any way. The original amendment put forward by the Republican leadership, however, is particularly outrageous. The amendment articulates the GOP’s wildest dreams, where the Democratic governor is specifically not empowered to do much of anything really. “The Governor shall not have the power or authority … to utilize all available resources of the state government … as reasonably necessary to cope with the disaster” and does not have the authority to “perform and exercise such other functions, powers, and duties as are necessary to promote and secure the safety and protection of the civilian population.” Really classic Republican stuff.

Republicans continue to grumble about government overreach after trying to incapacitate the state, curtailing its ability to do much of anything. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican also running for the U.S. Senate, said the limit on the size of church services was part and parcel of this typical Democratic overreach. “I think they were just very upset with the fact that the government was going to tell them that they couldn’t practice their religion,” Wagle said. Wagle said most people knew the dangers and weren’t planning on attending anyway, “but don’t tell us we can’t practice our religious freedoms.”

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Thursday’s episode of What Next.