Two lawmakers are proposing legislation in the upcoming Session to ensure a department store is never more “essential” than a church.
The legislation is a product of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the measures (HB 215 & SB 254), an emergency lockdown or shutdown order must apply equally across businesses and religious institutions in Florida. Republican Sen. Jason Broduer and Rep. Nick DiCeglie are the bill sponsors.
“If we’re going to close down and restrict religious institutions from being open, then we have to apply that same restriction to everybody,” DiCeglie explained to Florida Politics.
DiCeglie pointed to New York and California amid the pandemic, two places where government closed — or narrowed — church doors while allowing some businesses to remain operational.
In California, the Supreme Court intervened after Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom banned indoor worship as well as singing or chanting at religious services.
In New York, the Supreme Court determined 10- and 25-person occupancy restrictions violated the First Amendment.
Religious freedoms, among other constitutional rights, are a major concern among his constituents, DiCeglie said.
“I think it’s appropriate public policy that we make sure that we’re never in that situation here in the State of Florida,” added the Indian Rocks Beach lawmaker.
Gov. Ron DeSantis in April 2020 issued a statewide state-at-home order amid the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The order, however, exempted religious services.
The carveout marked a key moment in Hillsborough County, where a megachurch pastor was arrested after hosting an in-person service with hundreds of parishioners. Authorities deemed the service in violation of a local ordinance. The ordinance prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people, including at religious institutions. DeSantis later lifted all local emergency orders.
Notably, DiCeglie said the proposals are focused on the future rather than the present. He noted his church in Largo independently decided to host services online.
“They’re the ones that made that decision on their own,” DiCeglie said. “Government didn’t come in and essentially shut them down and I think that that’s a huge difference.”
If signed into law, the measure would take effect July 1.
The 2022 Legislative Session begins Jan. 11.