LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is suing to stop Republican lawmakers from overturning her executive order limiting church gatherings -- triggering a high-stakes legal showdown amid a deadly pandemic.
Kelly on Thursday afternoon sued the Legislative Coordinating Council -- the seven-member body of legislative leaders that voted Wednesday to revoke her order, calling it an infringement on freedom of religion.
The lawsuit marks a dramatic escalation in the state's ongoing fight over constitutional rights and public health, a dispute that potentially holds life-or-death implications as pastors and priests weigh whether to open church doors this Sunday.
Three of the state's 12 coronavirus clusters have stemmed from church gatherings, and health officials fear large Sunday services will further spread the contagion throughout the state.
"The last thing I want right now is a legal battle," Kelly said at a news conference. "But as I said yesterday, Kansas lives are on the line and I took an oath to uphold and defend the constitution."
The order, issued Tuesday, had brought religious gatherings under the statewide ban on mass gatherings of more than 10. The directive immediately rankled Republicans, who said it amounted to an overreach by the governor during a crisis.
But the Democratic governor contends the state's emergency management law allows only the full Legislature to revoke her orders, not the council. Last month, the Legislature approved a concurrent resolution -- not a law -- giving the council the power to review and revoke her orders.
The Republican legislative leaders who voted to revoke the order -- House Speaker Ron Ryckman, House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, Senate President Susan Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning -- came under crushing criticism after the vote.
The House Republican leaders in a joint statement said there were "concerned and disappointed" by Kelly's announcement. They said that they had been working the governor's office to resolve their differences.
They emphasized that they agree with Kelly that Kansans should stay home over Easter and Passover, that faith leaders should offer online services, that churches should follow health guidelines and that they should all work together to slow the spread of the virus.