Legislation giving houses of worship the right to keep their doors open during a state of emergency is ready for the full Senate’s consideration.
The bill (SB 254) on Thursday passed out of its second and final Senate committee nearly unanimously, as most lawmakers agreed religious institutions should be considered “essential services.” Lake Mary Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur explained to the Senate Rules Committee that the importance of houses of worship was one takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Basically, if Target and Publix are open, so too should be the religious institution,” Brodeur said.
Under Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida was one of a dozen states to deem houses of worship essential during the state’s stay-at-home order in the early months of the pandemic. States like California, New York and even Texas took a different path, shuttering religious institutions along with other businesses.
DeSantis in April 2020 also pushed back against categorizing some businesses as essential and others not, calling it an “illusory distinction.” Later, he extended his disdain for the “essential” versus “nonessential” distinction to workers.
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 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.
If an emergency order closed all businesses, religious institutions would be forced to close. Moreover, houses of worship could volunteer to close their doors to the public if state orders allowed them to remain open.
Jacksonville Democratic Sen. Audrey Gibson supported the bill. However, she asked Brodeur whether religious institutions could require masks or vaccination statuses to enter, a departure from DeSantis’ executive orders and now state law on COVID-19 mandates.
“If a religious institution says in order to come here, these are the things we require, they’re free to ask that. I don’t know that they can legally require that,” Brodeur answered.
Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell told senators he couldn’t, in good conscience, support the bill.
“There were a number of times that religious institutions decided to gather, and the result of that cost many people their lives,” Powell said.
He acknowledged he is religious, but his congregation went on hiatus during the pandemic. His and many other churches provided the public with online services.
“Us authorizing them to buck the system while ignoring emergency orders is not what I think we’re here to do,” Powell continued.
The bill’s House counterpart (HB 215), sponsored by Indian Rocks Beach Republican Rep. Nick DiCeglie, has yet to be scheduled for a hearing in its first committee, the Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee. Both measures would take effect in July if they become law.