Kansas coronavirus update: 'Hate group’ files church lawsuit against governor; state launches $36M child-care support program

Sherman Smith,Tim Carpenter
Two Kansas churches defended by the Alliance Defending Freedom organization in Scottsdale, Ariz., filed a federal lawsuit challenging Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order limiting church gatherings to no more than 10 people during the coroniavirus pandemic. [File photo/The Capital-Journal]

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TOPEKA — An attorney for Baptist churches in Junction City and Dodge City said Friday that Gov. Laura Kelly’s decision to maintain restrictions on in-person religious services prompted a federal lawsuit challenging constitutionality of the executive order limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Legal action in U.S. District Court on behalf of pastor Stephen Ormord of First Baptist Church in Dodge City and pastor Aaron Harris of Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City accused the governor of violating First Amendment rights and the right of assembly. The case filed Thursday seeks a temporary injunction to block enforcement of Kelly’s directive.

Ryan Tucker, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, Ariz., said the governor’s executive order prohibited churches from holding gatherings of 10 or more people while permitting more than two-dozen types of secular gatherings exceeding that limit.

“Singling out churches for special punishment while allowing others to have greater freedom not only makes no logical sense, it’s clearly unconstitutional, just as numerous others have warned the governor,” Tucker said.

The Legislating Coordinating Council, comprised of five Republican and two Democratic lawmakers, voted April 8 to reject Kelly’s church attendance order. Attorney General Derek Schmidt advised Kansas law enforcement agencies to ignore the governor’s directive.

Kelly petitioned the Kansas Supreme Court to referee the dispute. On April 11, the Supreme Court unanimously declared LCC lacked authority to interfere with the governor’s executive order on social distancing at churches.

The Baptist churches in Dodge City and Junction City held indoor services on Easter Sunday with 20 or more members of the congregation present. Both had congregation members sit 6 feet apart to limit person-to-person contact.

Kelly said she initially excluded churches from her mass gathering order, but responded to five church-related clusters of COVID-19 by amending the order to restrict size of religious gatherings.

“It had absolutely nothing to do with religious freedom,” Kelly said. “It had everything to do with the health and safety of Kansans.”

Alliance Defending Freedom describes itself as a legal organization advocating for the right of people to live their religious faith. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center defines ADF as a “hate group” working to criminalize LGBTQ relationships and to support the ability of businesses to deny goods and services to LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs.

On Friday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported coronavirus cases in 66 of 105 counties. Kansas has documented 84 deaths and 1,705 positive tests, including a surge in southwest Kansas.

Disproportionate toll

Kansas Sen. David Haley says there is a saying in his community about how black people are disproportionately affected by hardship in America. When white people catch a cold, he said, black people catch pneumonia.

“In everyday life, adversity has always been a little more pronounced on black people,” Haley said.

The Kansas City Democrat represents the most diverse district in the state, the one hardest hit by the pandemic. Wyandotte County has recorded 34 deaths and nearly 400 confirmed infections from COVID-19.

KDHE, at the direction of federal authorities, this week added a new layer of reporting to the data sets the agency updates daily from county health departments. The numbers now reflect race and ethnicity of coronavirus victims.

As is the case in other states, the early indication is the virus has a disproportionate impact on black residents. Data show black Kansans are seven times more likely to die from COVID-19, and three times as likely to be infected.

Those figures come with a caveat: Race and ethnicity haven’t been recorded for about 10% of the 84 fatalities statewide or 20% of the state’s 1,705 positive tests.

"Right now, we know we need more data,“ said Kristi Zears, spokeswoman for KDHE.

Haley said he personally knows some of the pandemic’s victims in his district, including ones who attended a mid-March conference at Miracle Temple Church of God in Christ. The church gathering has been connected to dozens of infections and five deaths.

Pre-existing health problems, financial status and access to health care are likely indicators of who gets seriously ill, Haley said, and may help explain the racial disparity.

"The COVID is a slap-in-the-face wake-up call, not only to the virus but to other phenomenon, if you will, that can affect life as we know it,“ Haley said. ”How we respond will make the human race stronger."

Of the 74 people who have died from COVID-19 in Kansas for which race data is available, 47 were white and 27 were black. The fatality rate for black residents is 12.39 per 100,000, compared to 1.61 for white residents.

The infection rate for black residents is 128.44 per 100,000. For white residents, the rate is 39.18. The rate is 71.75 for Latinos, 18.64 for Asians, and 13.89 for Native Americans.

Child-care support

The Kelly administration announced a $36 million relief fund Friday to help sustain child-care providers and provide options for first responders, health workers and other people engaged in essential business activities during the pandemic.

The federally funded initiative broadened eligibility for subsidies for families through the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

“During a time when these everyday heroes are working long hours, we hope this program helps relieve some of the financial burden they’re experiencing,” said Laura Howard, secretary at DCF. “It’s our duty to support families during this uncertain time so we encourage families to apply.”

On Monday, DCF will begin taking applications from health care workers, including registered nurses and health support staff at hospitals and laboratories; first responders in law enforcement, fire and rescue and other public safety occupations; food and agriculture workers; Kansas National Guard personnel; certain judicial branch staff; and child and adult protective service specialists.

Families must have a gross income at or below 250% of the federal poverty level to qualify. That would be equal to a monthly income of $5,458 for an average family of four. For more information and application instructions, visit KSHeroRelief.com.

The Hero Relief Program also provides support to child care providers by providing stipends and grants during the pandemic.

Wedding licenses

Ten district courts in Kansas have been authorized to begin Monday processing marriage license applications initiated with a telephone call and completed though the U.S. mail or by encrypted email. The courts remain closed to in-person contact due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The demand for marriage licenses continues even as we honor our state’s stay at home order,” said Marla Luckert, chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court.

She said residents of Johnson, Shawnee, Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties should apply through their respective district courts in Olathe, Topeka, Wichita and Kansas City, Kan. Otherwise, Kansans can apply through district court offices in Pittsburg, Hays, Garden City, Newton, Dodge City or Lawrence.

Marriage license paperwork requires applicants to provide a photo identification that includes personally identifiable information, such as date of birth, Social Security number, or driver’s license number. To protect this information, courts will begin an encrypted email exchange with the applicant through which the applicant will return completed paperwork. If an applicant doesn’t have email, courts will send and receive paperwork by U.S. mail.

Marriage license applications submitted but not issued before the courts closed to in-person contact must be resubmitted using this new process.

China connection

Republican rivals in the U.S. Senate race — Susan Wagle and Kris Kobach — are convinced the communist government in China launched the coronavirus pandemic from a lab in Wuhan.

Posts on Twitter by both candidates for the vacancy to be created by retirement of U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts amplify an as-yet unproven theory popular with defenders of President Donald Trump’s handling of a COVID-19 invasion that has killed more than 30,000 Americans.

"China's actions are criminal," said Wagle, the Kansas Senate president from Wichita. "The coronavirus outbreak came from a lab in Wuhan, China, and the communist government covered it up. That’s unforgivable."

State Rep. Rui Xu, a Westood Democrat and the first Chinese-American to serve in the Kansas Legislature, said Wagle’s rhetoric could be be harmful to citizens of the United States. "This is legitimately crazy," he said.

CNN reported U.S. intelligence officials were investigating several theories, including a possibility the virus was tied to a lab in China.

Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and rural Lecompton resident, said the lethal pandemic was unleashed on the world because of the Chinese Communist Party's "deception and propaganda."

"It's time we demand answers and hold China accountable for this crisis," Kobach said.