California state Senator Brian Jones introduced (SB 397), the “Religion is Essential Act,” to the state’s legislature on February 11. The bill would “require the state and local government to treat religious organizations just like they do other services considered ‘essential’ during pandemics,” the California Family Council (CFC) said in a press release sent to The Daily Citizen.

“Americans are guaranteed religious freedom and the right to congregate with fellow members at their chosen house of worship,” said Jones, a Republican representing California’s 38th Senate district, in San Diego County. He said that the state had violated those rights for 11 months, using “the excuse of COVID.”

The state senator explained that the U.S. Supreme Court “recently stepped in and returned our religious rights,” but argued that the legislation was necessary because the threat of government overreach during a state of emergency still remained.

Jonathan Keller, president of CFC, supported the measure, saying, “The Golden State is blessed with thousands of religious organizations who serve an indispensable role in our communities. Beyond meeting spiritual needs, these essential organizations help provide social services, health care, and economic assistance to millions of Californians.”

“No church, synagogue, or mosque should ever be treated less fairly than a ‘big box store’ as they seek to feed the hungry, serve the homeless, and love our neighbors,” Keller added.

Senator Jones said SB 397 would:

  1. Require that the Governor and local governments treat religious services as an essential service (just like retail) during any declared state of emergency; and
  2. Prohibit the state and local governments from discriminating against a religious organization during an emergency; and
  3. Require the state and local governments to permit religious services to continue operating during an emergency; and
  4. Prohibit the state and local governments from enforcing a health, safety or occupancy requirement that imposes a substantial burden on a religious service during an emergency; and
  5. Allow a religious organization that has been subject to state or local government overreach to file a claim for relief in an administrative or judicial proceeding.

Jones quoted Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, in the recent decision limiting California’s worship ban. Here’s the full quote from South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Gavin Newsom:

Government actors have been moving the goalposts on pandemic-related sacrifices for months, adopting new benchmarks that always seem to put restoration of liberty just around the corner. As this crisis enters its second year – and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan – it is too late for the State to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could. Drafting narrowly tailored regulations can be difficult. But if Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.

Jones wrote that the bill already had many supporters:

SB 397 is co-sponsored by California Family Council, Capitol Resource Institute, Judeo-Christian Caucus, and Real Impact. It is supported by Alliance Defending Freedom, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, and The Salt & Light Council, and it is awaiting assignment to a Senate policy committee for a hearing.

The California State Legislature joins other states considering “Religion is Essential” measures, including Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska and South Carolina. Arkansas was the first state to pass a bill protecting religion during a state of emergency; the governor signed legislation to protect religious organizations on February 10.

Californians wanting to support this measure can contact California Family Council.

Related articles and resources:

Contact Your State Policy Group

New Arkansas Law Declares Religious Organizations ‘Essential’ – Protects Churches During State of Emergency

Religious Freedom Wins for Churches in California over COVID Restrictions

States Introduce ‘Religion is Essential’ Bills – Here’s How You Can Speak Up for Religious Freedom

Supreme Court Ends California’s Worship Ban, Orders State to Permit Houses of Worship 25% Capacity