A new Sedgwick County health order prohibits gatherings of more than 25 people and demands mask-usage and social distancing, but religious facilities are exempt. Signed on Tuesday, Nov. 24, the order took effect on Friday, Nov. 27. It mandates capacity limits for fitness centers and retail establishments, creates a curfew for socializing in restaurants and bars, and limits the number of spectators at recreational sporting events.
The Sedgwick County Health Officer Dr. Garold Minns instead issued a recommendation that religious facilities conduct streaming worship services instead of in-person worship. The order was signed prior to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, issued on Thanksgiving Day, that rejected New York executive order that strictly limited attendance at religious services.
“The scriptures clearly tell believers to meet in person on a regular basis and the Constitution guarantees me the right to religious freedom. That’s what makes America, America,” said Rob Rotola, senior pastor at Word of Life Church in Wichita.
When the pandemic started, Rotola’s churches honored the President’s call to flatten the curve and slow the spread in 15 days.
“After that, we did parking lot church for the next three months,” Rotola said. “…We did everything to protect our people and worship our God at the same time.”
Kansas health orders have exempted religious gatherings since April when a pair of Kansas churches sued Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration. The lawsuit, First Baptist Church v. Kelly, was later dismissed. However, it prompted Kelly to issue a new executive order exempting churches from her mass gathering bans.
“Since then, the governor has not had the guts to try to do the draconian things she did in round one,” Rotola said.
He’s grateful to the legal profession for fighting for religious liberty. Rotola’s church continues to meet in person today.
Attorney Ryan Kriegshauser served as co-counsel on the lawsuit. He warned local officials to exercise caution in orders that place prohibitions on churches.
“As (U.S. Supreme Court) Justice Alito recently stated, ‘we have never before seen restrictions as severe, extensive and prolonged as those experienced for most of 2020.’ However, as Gov. Kelly learned after she was enjoined by a federal court earlier this year, public officials may not target religious institutions for discrimination,” Kriegshauser said. “Dr. Minns should tread particularly lightly when it comes to burdens on religious liberty from his orders. Otherwise, he could subject Sedgwick County to additional litigation. It is disappointing that some Kansas public health officials appear to view religious freedoms with disfavor during this pandemic.”
The Sedgwick County Commission put teeth into Minns’ latest orders by adopting an enforcement mechanism that requires businesses to enforce county social distancing guidelines and mask mandates. The commission created an online portal where citizens complain about businesses that aren’t following county health orders.
“Businesses and organizations are responsible for ensuring that individuals comply with the order’s mask-wearing, mass gathering, percentage of fire code capacity limitations and social distancing requirements,” a Sedgwick County press release reads. “Businesses are expected to make efforts to comply with fire code capacity limitations included in this order.”
In addition to ordering business capacity limits, social distancing guidelines, and mask mandates, Minn also recommended Sedgwick County employers to allow employees to work from home and urged local schools to use remote learning tools. He also cautioned families against Thanksgiving celebrations that include people from different households. Minns’ latest health order expires on Jan. 9, 2021.