Fact Check: Kansas City did not require churches to turn over membership lists
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect a correction made by Liberty Counsel to its article.
The claim: Kansas City's mayor is requiring churches that choose to hold services to provide city officials with a list of attendee names and contact information 'for tracking and surveillance'
As many state and local governments have released plans to reopen businesses and other venues closed due to the coronavirus, some groups took issue with new guidelines in Kansas City, Missouri.
Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based nonprofit Christian organization that has litigated cases involving religious liberty issues, reported Friday that Kansas City would allow churches and some "nonessential" businesses to reopen the following Wednesday, provided they kept a list of the contact information of members and attendees.
"The Kansas City government is now DEMANDING that churches turn over membership lists, along with the names, telephone numbers and physical addresses of anyone who enters a church!" the article on Liberty Counsel's website originally read.
On Wednesday, the article was corrected to remove references to membership lists being requested.
The article also states the record-keeping being asked of churches is among multiple "illegal and unconstitutional mandates" from state and local politicians regarding churches and the coronavirus.
Mat Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, told USA TODAY that the organization was initially contacted by concerned pastors. The requirement presents religious liberty and free speech concerns, he said, because it requires people to identify themselves and list contact information while attending a church, which could dissuade visitors.
He said churches have also been discriminated against from the outset by being grouped into the "nonessential" category and restricted from meeting in person.
"Now (they're) allowed to meet but only have 10 people, and then trace their names and contact information — it is a violation of the First Amendment," Staver said. "The other entities don't have a First Amendment constitutional free exercise of religion right, but the churches do."
A post linking to the story on Liberty Counsel's Facebook page had more than 1,700 shares as of Wednesday. The news also spread on other outlets, such as the Activist Mommy Facebook page, where it was shared 2,700 times, and numerous individual posts.
Kansas City 'soft reopening' plan
Kansas City went under a full stay-at-home order in late March that closed down nonessential activities. On April 29, Mayor Quinton Lucas announced an updated order allowing for the "soft reopening" of many nonessential businesses, as well as worship gatherings, on May 6.
The order would enforce a "10/10/10" rule, he said: Most nonessential retail businesses must limit the number of people to 10% of building occupancy or 10 people — whichever of the two is larger — and keep a record of the names, contact information and amount of time in the building for all customers who are there for more than 10 minutes. Businesses must keep records at least 30 days.
Church gatherings also were instructed to follow the 10/10/10 rule if held inside. Outside church services are limited to 50 people. The services were, according to the order, subject to the recording requirements.
"Our goal isn't actually to see what everybody's doing and be Big Brother," Lucas said at a press conference last week. "More of our goal and our emphasis on that is to make sure that if there is an outbreak at a beauty shop, at a barber shop, at a church, that our trackers can actually track down everyone."
Related to contact tracing
The process of contact tracing, seen as a tool to help track and limit transmission of the virus, involves reaching out to people who had contact with an infected person and following up as those contacts monitor for COVID-19 symptoms.
All data would remain confidential and be used only to address concerns about public health and perform contact tracing, the city's website said. The city would only request the lists if needed to trace an outbreak.
The order did not specify churches must turn over "membership lists" of those who are affiliated with a church — only those who attend on a Sunday within the time frame. Lucas said the order could be followed by having people sign in at the church, although he cautioned against everyone using the same sheet of paper.
“The government will not create or keep any records," Lucas said in a statement emailed to USA TODAY. "Like other outbreaks, from E. coli to measles in our schools, the Health Department is bound to confidentiality as it works with any organization to protect its attendees.”
In response to the soft reopening plans, groups like Liberty Counsel said over the weekend that they took issue with the requirement.
An updated reopening order
On Monday, Lucas issued a new, revised order. It encourages event organizers and businesses to consider keeping lists for contact tracing purposes when they reopen. But that is not mandatory, and the city has updated the frequently asked questions page on its website to reflect the changes.
"Attendees are not required, however, to provide their names or contact information at any religious gathering," the order says. "In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak connected to a religious gathering, a religious gathering may contact those potentially exposed and, subject to confidentiality, provide the names and other relevant information voluntarily provided at the gathering to the Department of Public Health."
In a Liberty Counsel press release Tuesday, Staver said the changes regarding the requirement to list names were "good news." But he said he believes other portions of Kansas City's limitations on church gatherings compared to other secular gatherings are still unconstitutional.
Our ruling: Partly false
The initial claim by Liberty Counsel and others is PARTLY FALSE. Kansas City's reopening order issued April 29 required churches to keep records of in-person attendees for the purpose of contact tracing. It did not require churches to turn over "membership lists" specifically and information was not used for "surveillance." //The original order never went into effect and was superseded by the revised order prior to churches reopening May 6.
Our fact-check sources:
- Kansas City Star: Kansas City metro under stay-at-home order effective Tuesday as coronavirus spreads
- Kansas City Star: Kansas City mayor issues stringent COVID-19 rules to any business reopening in May
- City of Kansas City: Fifth amended order from Mayor Quinton Lucas
- City of Kansas City: Fourth amended order from Mayor Quinton Lucas
- City of Kansas City: KCMO reopens FAQ
- Liberty Counsel: Churchgoers must register with the government in Kansas City
- Liberty Counsel: Kansas City repeals name gathering order
Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at email@example.com, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.
Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here.
Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.