Legislation that would protect places of worship from government-ordered closures during a pandemic has advanced from a state House committee.
House Bill 2648, by Rep. Jon Echols, states that any “order or rule issued by any governmental entity pursuant to an emergency that requires closure of any place of worship” shall be considered “a substantial burden even if the order or rule is one of general applicability.”
That change would require state and local governments to demonstrate that whatever policy goals are pursued through mandatory closure of a place of worship cannot be achieved by less-intrusive means.
Rep. Brian Hill, who presented the bill in committee, said churches have often been targeted by various government officials even as those same officials allow other activities involving large groups to proceed.
“We saw three separate states, not federally directed, that chose to arrest pastors, put pastors in jail, because they did the exact same thing that large box stores across the street from them did that same day,” said Hill, R-Mustang. “We saw one church in one state that officers blockaded their drive to keep them from having outside services when they were trying to abide by the ordinance that was put in place. These things are egregious, and I find that Oklahomans find them egregious, and I believe that’s why this is so crucial.”
Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, said, “I know that kind of foolishness isn’t going to happen in our state.”
But Hill responded that some severe restrictions were placed on churches and other places of worship in parts of Oklahoma.
Regulations championed by Norman Mayor Breea Clark allowed gyms and tattoo parlors to reopen but not houses of worship.
“To say that it won’t happen is a fallacy, because it already did,” Hill said.
One of the most notable examples occurred in Norman last May when regulations championed by Norman Mayor Breea Clark allowed gyms, tattoo parlors, and pet groomers to reopen on May 1 but not houses of worship.
That drew a rebuke from Attorney General Mike Hunter, who warned that “the city cannot discriminate against religious groups by shuttering churches while allowing other establishments—such as restaurants, gyms, retail stores, hair salons, and massage and tattoo parlors—that pose the same or greater risk to open.”
Waldron said the Tulsa Health Department reports that 8 percent of its COVID-19 outbreak cases are tied to churches, adding that he believes that figure is “likely heavily underreported,” and noting the state has “had experiences with megachurches holding concerts and other large gatherings without mask wearing.”
“Since there’s a clear secular purpose to municipal regulations, and since they are designed to keep people safe, and since the behavior of churchgoers and people who attend other large gatherings can have negative consequences for other citizens, and since we have access to Zoom, mask regulations, social-distancing protocols, limits on the number of people attending services, there are reasonable measures that can allow people to continue to attend church services as I do without facing the public health risks,” Waldron said. “Shouldn’t the right of municipalities to maintain public health standards carry some weight, especially when churches have all the options that I’ve laid out to adjust to the conditions that are created by the coronavirus pandemic?”
“No one’s saying that you or I have to enter a building. We have that freedom,” Hill said. “And the beauty of this is it still allows the church or the synagogue or the mosque to choose for their own if they will have in-person or not.”
Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, noted the legislation would still allow municipalities to impose other restrictions, such as limiting capacity, but would bar mandatory closure.
“As far as I’m concerned, where we would wind up getting into dangerous territory is if we’re favoring somebody over somebody else,” West said. “Does this bill in any way, shape or form say anything about what type of religious practice would be protected by this?”
“It is very purposeful in not doing that,” Hill responded.
HB 2648 passed the House States Rights Committee on a 5-1 vote with Waldron in opposition.
Echols hailed the bill's passage in a release issued after the meeting.
“Our country was founded on the premise of religious freedom for all, but we have seen and continue to see situations across the country where Americans’ right to worship has been trampled and ignored by overreaching bureaucracy,” said Echols, R-Oklahoma City. “A person’s sincerely held faith is an integral part of their life, especially how they cope with difficulties, and forcing places of worship to close for weeks or months at a time during a state of emergency or crisis is un-American and goes against the very core of our nation.”
Hill said the bill was requested by “multiple communities of faith.”
“For many, like myself, my faith is as essential as the food I eat or the air I breathe, and I think that is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment and by our Oklahoma Constitution,” Hill said, “and so I think that is the base of this.”
NOTE: This article has been updated since publication to include comments from Echols and to correct information on the bill's authorship.