March 2021 Church & State Magazine | AU Bulletin

Several state legislatures are deliberating bills that would make it harder for the government to protect public health in the face of a pandemic.

At last count, Americans United’s Public Policy Department tallied bills like this in at least 36 states.

While AU recognizes the importance of religious freedom, the organization holds that during a deadly pandemic, officials must have the ability to take steps to protect the people. This may include restrictions on all types of mass gatherings, both religious and secular.

These bills, by contrast, are designed to give houses of worship special treatment by allowing them to meet when comparable secular institutions are closed. Carve-outs like this will only make it harder to overcome the coronavirus or future pandemics.

AU noted that three of these bills were moving in February:

Arkansas: HB 1211 gives religious organizations a broad exemption from COVID restrictions. It passed the state House by a vote of 75-10 with no debate, later passed the Senate and is now law. A witness who testified in favor of the bill admitted its language came from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian-nationalist legal group.

North Dakota: Lawmakers took a bill that dealt with other issues, gutted it and replaced it with language designed to make it more difficult for state officials to issue orders closing houses of worship during a pandemic. The measure, SB 2181, has already passed the state Senate.

Missouri: The Missouri Senate held hearings on three different bills that would place various cumbersome restrictions on the governor’s ability to issue emergency orders. One bill, SB 21, would prohibit orders that impose “any restrictions, directly or indirectly, on the free exercise of religion,” a standard so broad it could make these orders difficult or impossible to enforce.

AU’s Public Policy Department is monitoring similar bills in other states