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Bill blocking church closures during emergencies goes to DeSantis

The bill emerged after incidents early in the COVID-19 pandemic where churches were forced to close.
The annual Easter tradition at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in St. Pete Beach usually takes place inside the church, but was moved outdoors to comply with COVID-19 social distancing measures.
The annual Easter tradition at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in St. Pete Beach usually takes place inside the church, but was moved outdoors to comply with COVID-19 social distancing measures. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Mar. 3|Updated Mar. 4

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would shield churches and other religious institutions from being closed by government orders during future emergencies is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The House voted 88-29 Wednesday to approve the measure (SB 254), which would block emergency orders from “directly or indirectly” preventing religious institutions from conducting services or activities. The Senate voted 31-3 to pass the bill in January.

The bill emerged after a number of high-profile situations early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when churches in various parts of the country were forced to close or scale back.

“Bureaucrats and politicians across the country have exploited this pandemic to roll back our freedom to live our lives, to live the American dream,” House sponsor Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, said. “And just as we have worked to preserve the rights of our businesses, our families and our children, today, (House) members, we have a duty to protect religious freedom for all Floridians.”

Representatives of DeSantis didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether he will sign the bill.

The bill would leave open a narrow possibility of future restrictions on religious services or activities. It says a “general provision in an emergency order which applies uniformly to all entities in the affected jurisdiction 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.”

Rep. Mike Beltran, a Lithia Republican who is an attorney, said that in responding to “legitimate public health emergencies,” governments could issue directives including religious institutions “as long as they treat religion on par with everything else.” Supporters of the bill have criticized orders that closed churches during the pandemic, while businesses such as big-box retailers were allowed to remain open.

Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, called the proposal “overbroad.”

“I don’t criticize the intent of this bill,” Geller said. “Religious freedom is what this country was founded on. But I just don’t think we’ve got it quite right here. I think we’re trying to paint with too broad a stroke and not recognizing the degree to which our very survival in some kinds of an emergency might depend on strict restrictions.”

In one incident in 2020, a Tampa megachurch pastor 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.

Related: Charges dropped against Tampa pastor who held services during stay-at-home order

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.

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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.

By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

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