Jackson County settles lawsuit church filed over COVID restrictions

By The Examiner staff

The Jackson County Legislature has voted to settle a lawsuit filed last year by Abundant Life Baptist Church over COVID-19 safety protocols. The church said the county’s rules at the time treated churches unfairly. 

The county and Truman Medical Centers, which operates the county Health Department, are paying the church $146,750. The county says that money covers the church’s attorney’s fees. 

Abundant Life, based in Lee’s Summit, also has locations in Blue Springs and Independence. 

The church sued the county in federal court in May 2020, alleging a civil rights violation. It said it complied with the county’s initial order to ban private or public gatherings and to close all but essential businesses. The church said it “made every effort to comply” with the county’s order, canceled five in-person services and live-streamed services in what it called “a less-desirable alternative.” 

Then the county loosened the rules, allowing non-essential businesses to reopen at up to one-fourth of their rated capacity under the fire code. Churches, however, were kept under the heading of “large gatherings and social events” and limited to gatherings of no more than 10 people, including staff.  

Abundant Life argued that its largest space is rated at 4,740 people. Were it a bar, restaurant or store, it would have been limited to 474 people rather than 10. It said in its court filing that the county’s orders “impermissibly discriminate against religiously-motivated gatherings, and in favor of commercially-motivated gatherings.” 

County legislators discussed the issue in closed session Monday and then voted in open session to settle the suit. 

The only public comment on the issue came from the chair of the Legislature, Dan Tarwater III, D-Kansas City, who said, “It’s not anything necessarily we like doing, but one of the necessary evils.” 

The vote was 6-2. Legislators Ronald Finley and Crystal Williams, both D-Kansas City, voted no.  

The settlement states that Abundant Life is free to hold services and that should COVID-related restrictions on churches be needed again, those would be no more strict than those imposed on "comparable secular activities.”