Bill deeming churches essential during emergencies progresses despite possible flaws
Image via AP.

covid church
'I seem to come to the same conclusion, which is that I almost would rather (it) be broad.'

Lawmakers could be erring on the side of broader protections for religious services during states of emergency.

Under the legislation (SB 254 and 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. In effect, church doors would be among the last to close during a state of emergency.

The House State Affairs Committee advanced the House bill Wednesday with a 15-7 party-line vote, but not without bill sponsor and Indian Rocks Beach Republican Rep. Nick DiCeglie acknowledging the opportunity to tweak the bill.

DiCeglie said the legislation 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.

But Florida was not without controversy. A Hillsborough County megachurch pastor was arrested in April 2020 after hosting an in-person service with hundreds of parishioners, flouting the local ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. DeSantis later lifted all local emergency orders.

“I certainly have been incredibly disappointed and insulted in what has happened in some areas of our state and in some areas of our country when it comes to these emergency orders,” DiCeglie said.

Orlando Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith asked whether “revival concerts” might count as a regular religious service or activity under the bill. DiCeglie said he believed it would count if it was a way of people exercising their faith.

So, too, would Bible study. But DiCeglie said he wouldn’t be the ultimate decider on what constitutes a regular religious activity.

“That’s something that maybe the courts would have to chime in on that, because it is broad,” DiCeglie said, adding that he was comfortable with the definition being broad.

However, after Smith said he feared someone could declare any activity a regular religious activity and be protected under the bill, DiCeglie said he is open to a conversation to further clarify the definition.

“You’re right, we have an opportunity to fix it here,” DiCeglie said.

Because the bill states that a lockdown order could apply to houses of worship if it “applies uniformly to all entities,” Weston Democratic Rep. Robin Bartleman asked whether DiCeglie would consider carving out emergency services. He would consider it, he replied.

Smith said he wasn’t a “hard no” for the future, as long as lawmakers reworked the bill to be more specific and intentional.

In closing, DiCeglie told members they held a “great and necessary debate” and that he would take their suggestions and feedback seriously. He said he would think long and hard about the debate, but stated that the bill’s intent is clear.

“As I listen to this debate, in my mind I’m thinking, ‘What opportunities could there be to define some of these words?'” DiCeglie said. “But I seem to come to the same conclusion, which is that I almost would rather (it) be broad.”

His proposal next heads to the House Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to pass its identical version, sponsored by Lake Mary Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur, Thursday or Friday.

If the bill becomes law, it would take effect July 1.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.


2 comments

  • Matthew Lusk

    January 31, 2022 at 9:07 am

    The Constitution is very broad on freedom of religion. No protection law would be necessary, excepting the fact authoritarian leftist judges on the bench.

  • Matthew Lusk

    January 31, 2022 at 9:16 am

    The Constitution is very broad on freedom of association. All non criminal Group meetings are legal. The government is not a nurse maid. Clinical health is a right and responsibility of individuals. Government, keep the hell out. Freedom of movement and property is essential to a free society.

Comments are closed.


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