Senate measure aims to keep Florida churches open during emergencies

Under the bill, houses of worship would be treated more like essential businesses in the event of another pandemic shutdown or other calamity.
A service at Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg in July 2021, a time when many worshipers were starting to filter back into churches as COVID-19 cases were ebbing.
A service at Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in St. Petersburg in July 2021, a time when many worshipers were starting to filter back into churches as COVID-19 cases were ebbing. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published Jan. 13, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — After high-profile disputes in various parts of the country about shuttering churches during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Florida Senate is poised to take up a proposal that would help prevent closures of religious institutions during future emergencies.

The Senate Rules Committee on Thursday voted 13-1 to support a measure (SB 254) intended to shield in-person religious services from being shut down because of emergency orders.

Sen. Jason Brodeur
Sen. Jason Brodeur [ Florida Senate ]

Bill sponsor Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said religious institutions would still have to close if lockdown orders were applied to all businesses in a crisis such as a hurricane, but “basically, if Target and Publix are open, so too should be the religious institution.”

Brodeur added that the proposal wouldn’t preclude religious leaders from acting on their own to conduct services virtually. With Thursday’s committee vote, the bill is ready for consideration by the full Senate.

Sen. Bobby Powell, a West Palm Beach Democrat who voted against the bill, said the state has a responsibility to protect people.

“There were a number of times that religious institutions decided to gather and the result of that caused many people their lives,” Powell said. “That being said, we’re stewards of the state. We do have a responsibility to always kind of move the state forward. In essence, a religious institution being within the state of Florida, thus authorizing them to buck the system by ignoring emergency orders, is not what I think we’re here to do.”

When pressed by Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, about whether the measure would prevent religious leaders from requiring congregants to produce vaccination cards or wear masks to attend services, Brodeur replied, “They’re free to ask that. I don’t know that they can legally require that.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on March 9, 2020, as the pandemic began to hit the state. Among the more than 50 supplemental coronavirus-related executive orders that DeSantis issued, one provided that certain essential businesses and establishments could operate at reduced capacities, including churches, synagogues and other houses of worship.

The exemption came shortly after the pastor of a Tampa megachurch was arrested for holding two in-person church services in violation of a Hillsborough County ordinance prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. The charges were eventually dropped.

A Senate staff analysis noted that by May 2020, when then-President Donald Trump called for the reopening of religious institutions, more than 90 percent of the institutions were estimated to have been closed to in-person worship.

By April 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court had at least five times rejected California’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious exercises, the staff report said.

Rep. Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, has filed the House version (HB 215) of Brodeur’s proposal. The House bill has not started moving through committees. The annual legislative session started Tuesday.

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