House bill protects religious services during lockdowns clears committee
Many churches held Easter Mass live-streamed due to a government-imposed lockdown. Image via AP.

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The companion bill is awaiting the Senate's consideration.

Church doors in Florida would be among the last to close during a state of emergency per a bill OK’d Wednesday by a House committee.

Under the proposal (HB 215), state law would label houses of worship as an “essential service,” meaning religious events and activities may continue so long as any business is permitted to operate.

Republican Rep. Nick DiCeglie of Indian Rocks Beach is the bill sponsor. The House Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee approved the bill without questions or debate.

The legislation, DiCeglie explained, is a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s ensuing response. 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, however, took a different path, shuttering religious institutions along with other businesses.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom later limited indoor worship as well as singing or chanting at religious services. New York, meanwhile, rolled out capacity restrictions.

“I think it’s appropriate public policy that we make sure that we’re never in that situation here in the state of Florida,” DiCeglie told Florida Politics in September.

Florida, though, was not without controversy. A Hillsborough County megachurch pastor was arrested in April 2020 after hosting an in-person service with hundreds of parishioners.

Authorities deemed the service violated a local ordinance. The ordinance prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people, including at religious institutions. DeSantis later lifted all local emergency orders.

DiCeglie’s proposal will appear next before the State Affairs Committee and Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, the Senate companion bill is awaiting the full Senate’s consideration.

That measure (SB 254) passed Thursday out of its second and final committee stop nearly unanimously. Lake Mary Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur is the bill sponsor.

If signed into law, the legislation would take effect July 1.

Jason Delgado

Jason Delgado covers news out of the Florida State Capitol. After a go with the U.S. Army, the Orlando-native attended the University of Central Florida and earned a degree in American Policy and National Security. His past bylines include WMFE-NPR and POLITICO Florida. He'd love to hear from you. You can reach Jason by email ([email protected]) or on Twitter at @byJasonDelgado.


One comment

  • Alexia

    January 27, 2022 at 9:17 am

    This bill is not what it appears to be on the surface. It allows government to define what a religious institution is, and then gives them the authority to close their doors if they believe the circumstances warrant it. Why do I need an extra law to protect my religious freedom? We already have the 1st Amendment. Just keep your hands away from the church and this is a non-issue.

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