Florida bill SB 254, which passed the Senate in January, would officially designate religious services as being essential and therefore allow houses of worship, including churches, to remain open and host public gatherings in the event of a public emergency or disaster. The governor received the bill last Friday and has until June 30 to act on it.
“An emergency order authorized by this part may not directly or indirectly prohibit religious services or activities,” the bill states.
It adds that the only circumstance of a shutdown is “in an emergency order which applies uniformly to all entities in the affected jurisdiction [and] may be applied to a religious institution if the provision is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
If approved by DeSantis, the provisions would take effect on July 1.
The Sunshine State will then be one of a dozen states to exempt houses of worship from stay-at-home orders. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic many churches were forced to shut down, while liquor or marijuana stores remained open. Some had to provide the public with online services.
Amid the pandemic, DeSantis issued a temporary statewide emergency order in April 2020 (pdf) outlining “attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues, and houses of worship” as essential services and activities, after states like Washington, New York, and California shuttered local places of worship.
“I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church,” DeSantis explained to reporters during a news conference at the time. “I’m certainly not going to do that.”
The draft legislation SB 254 would make the executive order permanent.
Bill sponsor Florida Sen. Jason Brodeur, a Republican, said earlier this year that the importance of houses of worship was one takeaway from the pandemic, according to Florida Politics. “Basically, if Target and Publix are open, so too should be the religious institution,” he said.
Arizona, Kentucky, and South Carolina signed similar bills in April to protect residents’ right to religious freedom, declaring religious services essential in times of state emergencies.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill last June to prohibit government agencies from ordering churches and houses of worship to close, following health-related COVID-19 orders that mandated the closure of churches and other religious houses.
Last June, DeSantis signed a measure that would require K–12 public schools to hold at least one minute of silence for children to meditate or pray.