County exempts churches from mass gathering mandate

County exempts churches from mass gathering mandate

Dickinson County churches now can return to full capacity after the Dickinson County Commission exempted religious institutions and organizations from the mass gathering requirements included in the recent public health order approved last week.

Commissioners approved the amendment to Health Order DK012821 Thursday morning during their regular meeting. The change went into effect at midnight today (Friday).

The exemption was approved in response to a letter from the Kansas Justice Institute (KJI) in Overland Park that stated the restrictions on gathering sizes were an “arbitrary and unconstitutional impediment to the free exercise of religion.”

County Administrator Brad Homman said he learned of the organization’s concerns late last week from County Counselor Doug Thompson.

“They (Kansas Justice Institute) questioned the constitutionality of the churches not being exempted and having restrictions on their mass gatherings,” Homman said.

“He (Thompson) felt it was a good call on their part to call it to his attention to make sure we are constitutional in our order,” Homman said. “And we do want to make sure it’s legal.”

Although the county agrees with the exemption, church parishioners are still encouraged to maintain six feet of social distancing when feasible between individuals who do not reside together and take other proper precautions.

Thompson said exempting religious organizations from the mass gathering requirement is appropriate because of the separation of church and state.

During the virtual public comment portion of the meeting Sam MacRoberts, an attorney with the KJI, thanked the commission for taking his letter seriously, commending them for amending the health order to be in line so it’s “appropriate under the Kansas and U.S. Constitution.”

Thompson said he and MacRoberts’ philosophies on the topic are “very, very similar” and he appreciates how quickly the county acted to amend the situation.

“These are extremely difficult times. Last week the county adopted the change that made it 50 percent of capacity. Now this week we’re addressing making that exemption for churches,” Thompson said.

He noted that the church he attends has lost a number of parishioners who have died in recent months, commenting that people 80 and older are particularly susceptible to contracting the virus.

“The churches have lost a lot of good people,” Thompson said.

During the Jan. 28 meeting, commissioners unanimously voted to extend the health order — which not only governs gathering sizes, the wearing of masks and other concerns — for an additional 45 days. That extension loosened up restrictions on mass gatherings, increasing the numbers 25 to 50 percent of a building’s fire occupancy rating. For facilities without a fire code capacity, the maximum number was increased from 30 to 50 people.

Commission Chairman Lynn Peterson noted at the time the restrictions were loosened at the request of at least two local ministers. Thursday’s action removes all church attendance restrictions.