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Kansas Awaits Ruling Over Easter Church Gatherings

TOM GJELTEN, HOST:

The Kansas Supreme Court convened an emergency session today. The goal - to resolve a dispute between Democratic Governor Laura Kelly and Republican legislative leaders who opposed her attempt to stop churches from holding Easter services amid the coronavirus outbreak. More from Jim McLean of the Kansas News Service.

JIM MCLEAN, BYLINE: There was nothing typical about today's hearing. Because of the coronavirus, the court, like everything else, is operating differently.

MARLA LUCKERT: Today is a historic day as we hear arguments for the first time by video conferencing.

MCLEAN: The justices, led by Chief Justice Marla Luckert, gathered virtually from their homes to hear the case filed just three days ago by Governor Kelly. The dispute centers on Kelly's use of sweeping orders to slow the spread of the virus and efforts by Republican lawmakers to rein her in. Kelly was the first governor to close schools for the rest of the academic year and among the first in the region to impose a statewide stay-at-home policy three weeks ago

LAURA KELLY: I left these decisions to local health departments for as long as possible.

MCLEAN: Members of the Republican-controlled legislature were quick to accuse her of overreacting. Here's Senator Rob Olson.

ROB OLSON: I don't want anybody to die. I don't want anybody to get this virus. But we can't close this country down. Everybody can't stay home.

MCLEAN: Just before the social distancing rules sent them home for the month of April, Republican lawmakers agreed to extend the emergency declaration, but only if Kelly agreed to allow a panel of legislative leaders to review and possibly reject her subsequent orders. That agreement held until recently, when lawmakers blocked Kelly's move to add church services and funerals to places where no more than 10 people could gather. Republican Senate President Susan Wagle led the opposition.

SUSAN WAGLE: We're restricting individual rights to practice religious liberties, so I can't approve this.

MCLEAN: The very next day, an angry Kelly took the lawmakers to court. Meanwhile, the legal battle left many pastors unsure of the rules heading into Easter weekend. Gregory Riggen, pastor of the Church of Truth in suburban Kansas City, is planning to bring people together in what he calls a parking lot service.

GREGORY RIGGEN: But we are going to park the cars in such a way that you'll be able to see one another, smile at one another and enjoy worshipping together for the first time in several weeks.

MCLEAN: The two sides are still awaiting the court's ruling.

For NPR News, I'm Jim McLean in Topeka. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.