Senate votes to protect churches from emergency lockdowns
Image via AP.

covid church
Houses of worship would still close if a lockdown order shuttered all entities.

The Senate has passed legislation making churches among the last to close during a state of emergency.

Senators approved the bill (SB 254), a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s ensuing response, by a 31-3 vote Thursday.

Unlike on the House side, where the bill garnered opposition from most Democrats who have seen the legislation (HB 215) in the committee process, only three Democrats — Sens. Lori Berman, Tina Polsky and Bobby Powell — voted against the bill.

However, Democrats did prod the bill sponsor, Sanford Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur, asking what constraints the bill places on state and local government emergency orders.

The proposal would consider houses of worship an “essential service,” meaning religious events and activities may continue so long as any entity is permitted to operate. That would keep religious institutions open as long as other stores.

Houses of worship would close if a lockdown order shuttered all entities.

“It is borne out of the pandemic, but not,” Brodeur told senators. “It applies to all emergency orders that would come in that would basically say a Publix is open.”

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.

“What (the bill) doesn’t seek to do is what we’ve seen in some of the other states where churches, synagogues and mosques were singled out for congregated activities,” Brodeur said. “This protects them from that in the future.”

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.

The House version, carried by Indian Rocks Beach Republican Rep. Nick DiCeglie, next heads to the House Judiciary Committee.

DiCeglie said he would consider making changes to the bill to define what constitutes a regular religious activity or services. Another possible change would clarify that religious functions could close before emergency operations. However, DiCeglie told members he would prefer a broader bill.

If the legislation is approved, 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.


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