Kentucky to treat churches as ‘essential services’

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Unsplash/Debby Hudson

Kentucky passed a law that requires the government to treat places of worship the same as essential services whenever a state of emergency is declared after many states and municipalities enacted emergency ordinances during the pandemic limiting the size and scope of religious gatherings.

Democratic Governor Andy Beshear signed House Bill 43 in the law on Tuesday, which exempts places of worship from specific emergency measures unless “those homes have become unsafe to a degree that would warrant condemnation in the absence of a state of emergency.”

“A government entity shall not prohibit or restrict a religious organization from operating or engaging in religious services during a declared emergency to the same or greater extent than other organizations or businesses that provide necessary and essential services. vital to the health and well-being of the public are prohibited or restricted,” the new law continues.

“[N]o health, safety or occupational requirements may impose a substantial burden on a religious organization or its services, unless the application of the burden to the religion or religious service in the particular case is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

The new law will not prohibit the state from requiring religious organizations to “comply with neutral health, safety, or occupancy requirements that apply to all organizations and businesses that provide essential services”.

Introduced in January and primarily sponsored by Republican Rep. Shane Baker, HB 43 adopted in the House on March 1 by a vote of 83 votes against 12, then in the Senate on March 23 by a vote of 30 votes against 7.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit conservative legal association that has argued religious liberty cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, celebrated the passage of the bill.

ADF legal counsel Greg Chafuen said in A declaration Tuesday that places of worship “provide soul sustaining operations that are essential to our society and protected by the First Amendment.”

“While public officials have the power and responsibility to protect public health and safety, the First Amendment prohibits the government from treating places of worship and religious organizations worse than shopping malls, restaurants or gymnasiums,” Chafuen said.

“HB 43 clarifies that officials cannot discriminate against religious operations, including during a public crisis. We commend Governor Beshear and the Kentucky Legislature for taking this important step to uphold the religious freedom of all Kentuckians.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many local state governments have been accused of treating churches worse than comparable secular entities in their various lockdown policies aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.

In November 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn c. Cuomo that some New York restrictions had unfairly targeted religious groups.

“The members of this Court are not experts in public health, and we must respect the judgment of those who have particular expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be set aside and forgotten,” the majority said.

“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively prohibiting many people from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.”

In other states, governments have had to pay settlements in response to lawsuits filed on behalf of churches and other religious organizations who believe their First Amendment rights were violated because their congregations could not gather. due to restrictions against large gatherings.

Last May, California paid $1.35 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Harvest Rock Church over COVID-19 policies.

Kentucky is not the first state to pass legislation to limit the ability of state agencies to issue emergency ordinances that place stricter restrictions on religious bodies than comparable secular entities.

In March 2021, North Dakota passed a law stating that state officials cannot treat “religious conduct more restrictively than secular conduct of reasonably comparable risk, unless the government demonstrates by clear and convincing scientific evidence that a particular religious activity poses an extraordinary health risk”. .”

Similar laws have been passed in states like New Hampshire and Indiana.

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Michelle J. Kelley