Religious and Racial Equality

Bills Granting Houses Of Worship Special Treatment During Pandemics Are Pending In Several States

  Rob Boston

Several state legislatures are considering 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 36 states.

AU recognizes the importance of religious freedom, but we also realize 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. The flock of bills we’re seeing in the states 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.

Here’s a round-up of some bills that are moving or are expected to move soon:

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. The bill would severely limit the power of the governor, which may lead to more deliberation in the state Senate. A witness who testified in favor of the bill admitted its language came from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian nationalist legal group. We’ve seen similar language in other states, which suggests that ADF is shopping the bill to friendly legislators nationwide.

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. We believe these measures are misguided and dangerous.

Religious freedom is a cherished right of the American people, but it confers no right to harm others by exposing them to a potentially deadly sickness. Americans United is working to ensure that we protect religious freedom even as we take steps to ensure the health and well-being of our people. You can read more about this important work here.

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