As people across the nation observe Passover and prepare to celebrate Easter and Ramadan, states are cracking down on religious gatherings to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. But some lawmakers and religious leaders are challenging the social distancing measures.

As people across the nation observe Passover and prepare to celebrate Easter and Ramadan, states are cracking down on religious gatherings to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. But some lawmakers and religious leaders are challenging the social distancing measures.

In Kansas, that battle has reached the Supreme Court. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly filed a lawsuit Thursday after a Republican-dominated legislative panel overturned her executive order banning religious and funeral services of more than 10 attendees during the coronavirus pandemic.

Republican Senate President Susan Wagle painted the executive order as an attack on Christians. "Now, during Holy Week for Christians, she is closing our churches," Wagle said on Twitter. "We are doing our part to slow the spread."

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While most churches nationwide were expected to be closed for in-person Easter services, some are still planning to hold large gatherings.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear announced Friday that anyone who goes to a mass gathering – including religious services – may have their license plates recorded. That information will be used to identify attendees, whom local health officials will contact and require to self-quarantine for 14 days.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Thomas Massie slammed the announcement. "Taking license plates at church?" Paul tweeted late Friday. "Quarantining someone for being Christian on Easter Sunday? Someone needs to take a step back here."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, said the mayor of Louisville was infringing on religious freedoms by barring churchgoers from holding drive-in services in church parking lots. But Saturday afternoon, a federal judge had rebuked the mayor’s directive to churches, calling the move overbroad and unconstitutional.

"On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter," wrote U.S. District Judge Justin Walker in a temporary restraining order issued Saturday.

Similar showdowns are happening across the United States:

► In Louisiana, the Rev. Tony Spell continues to defy the state’s orders prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people by holding church services, the latest of which he claimed had over 1,000 attendees. Spell told USA TODAY that he expects a crowd of more than 2,000 to gather at Life Tabernacle Church on Sunday. "We are a church aren't we?" he wrote in an email.

In Idaho, Ammon Bundy, the militia leader who spearheaded the 2016 occupation of federal land in Oregon, planned to host an "Easter Service & Potluck" event on Sunday, according to Bundy's Facebook page.

► In Florida, the pastor of a megachurch who was arrested after he held services with hundreds of people has had a change of heart. Rodney Howard-Browne is now expected to stream Easter services online. The River at Tampa Bay Church made the announcement on Facebook, inviting parishioners to "tune in" Sunday.

► In California, a federal judge denied a San Diego church's request to hold an Easter service, even with social distancing measures including possibly requiring members to wear hazmat suits.

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Kansas court to determine if state can ban large religious gatherings

The Kansas Supreme Court met over video conference Saturday for the first time ever, and opening arguments in Gov. Laura Kelly's suit were broadcast on YouTube.

While both Kelly and the state's Legislative Coordinating Council agree on the importance of social distancing to prevent spread, the panel argues that the state does not have the constitutional authority to ban large gatherings of worshipers.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt echoed the panel's views in a memo Wednesday, encouraging residents to voluntarily comply with the order but discouraging law enforcement from enforcing the order. "Because no Kansan should be threatened with fine or imprisonment, arrested, or prosecuted for performing or attending church or other religious services," Schmidt wrote.

Kelly, however, said the decision to overturn the executive order "weakened and confused" the state's emergency response efforts to the pandemic, which has killed at least 50 people in the state. "The last thing I want right now is a legal battle," Kelly said in a press release. "But Kansas lives are on the line."

In Texas, the Supreme Court has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a conservative activist and a group of pastors arguing that a county stay-at-home order violated the Constitution by ordering the closure of churches. Just one day after the group filed the petition, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order classifying religious services as "essential."

Religious services are also exempted from Florida's stay-at-home order.

Contributing: Matthew Glowicki, Louisville Courier Journal

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