LAWRENCE — Authorities in Douglas and Geary counties say they are prepared to enforce limits on church gatherings this weekend as set out in Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s April 7 executive order, issued to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Kelly’s order bars religious gatherings and funerals with more than ten people in attendance. Violation is a misdemeanor carrying penalties of up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Last weekend at least two churches, one in each county, appeared to violate the directive.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement have been in touch with Heritage Baptist Church’s pastor, Rev. Scott Hanks, according to Jennifer Hethcoat, the sheriff’s spokesperson. She declined to share details about the conversation.
On Easter Sunday, a reporter from the Lawrence Journal-World observed about 40 cars in the church parking lot. Hethcoat said then that the county could not enforce the governor’s order until it was published by the Kansas Secretary of State.
The order was in legal limbo last week when Republican legislative leaders voted to revoke it, contending that it was an overreach of executive power. At the same time Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt encouraged Kansans participating in religious services to voluntarily observe the restrictions.
But in a memo to law enforcement and prosecutors, he wrote “we also strongly discourage law enforcement from attempting to enforce the requirements.”
On Saturday, the state supreme court ordered the governor’s directive reinstated.
Police said that this weekend individuals who do not comply will be reported to the Douglas County district attorney’s office or arrested.
“We hope that all residents do their part to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our community by adhering to the order and staying home unless performing an essential activity,” Douglas County Public Health Director Dan Partridge said in a statement. “We firmly believe voluntary compliance is vital and key to the health of our residents.”
On Wednesday evening, a woman stood on the road alongside the church entrance holding a sign that said, “Don’t be selfish. Go home. God will be there, too.” She declined an interview.
The Star observed multiple cars in the parking lot Wednesday and more than a dozen people congregating a white tent behind the church.
Attempts to reach Hanks were unsuccessful.
In Geary County, Junction City police met Tuesday with Pastor Aaron Harris of Calvary Baptist Church, who told The Star last Sunday that he held a service with about 21 people. Police didn’t observe any violation of the order when they stopped by.
Police Chief John Lamb said the governor’s order was explained to Harris, who was told any violations would be reported to the Geary County Attorney.
Harris said Sunday the church would continue to hold in-person services.
“We are, for better or worse,” Harris said. “We are meeting in person. We’re not trying to provoke a fight, but we’re not shying away from one either.”
Kelly told reporters Monday that county leadership should decide how to approach enforcement of the executive order.
“I am hoping that we don’t see any other clusters as a result of what happened over the weekend,” Kelly said. “Time will tell.”
Kansas reported at least 1,494 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and 76 deaths Wednesday.
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